Borough President Richards reveals details of discussions with Hillcrest students following antisemitic protest

Borough President Donovan Richards went to Hillcrest High School to learn more about the antisemitic rampage from the students themselves.
Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

A Nov. 30 rally against antisemitism and support of pro-Israel teachers at Hillcrest High School in Jamaica was called off Wednesday at the request of the 9th grade teacher at the school who was targeted by hundreds of students who rampaged through the hallways to protest her support of Israel.

After videos of the Nov. 20 incident went viral on social media, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and Schools Chancellor David Banks met with students at the school on Monday to hear their perspective. They also met with faculty members at the school.

Richards on Wednesday said he was not surprised that the teacher asked organizers to call off the rally outside the school.

“What does that say about this woman? Let me say this. The mere fact that she could have easily walked away from the entire school itself says that she has character, but it also speaks to her knowing her students,” Richards told QNS. “The teacher is coming back, obviously, so there was no need for the rally tomorrow. Muslim teachers in the school were talking about how she must return and how they were working with her. This school is not some antisemitic black hole, these are real people in that school.”

During a meeting with around 60 students, Richards was impressed by Muslim senior class president Muhammad Ghazali.

The school’s senior class president, Muhammad Ghazali, spoke on behalf of the students. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

“He said this Jewish teacher must return to school because this country was founded on the foundation of peaceful protests and democracy,” Richards recalled. “I will never forget that young man because he has a bright future, as a matter of fact, there are elected officials who can learn from him.”

Richards expounded on his disappointment with elected leaders who took to social media and slammed the students at Hillcrest “with a broad brush” instead of going to the school and hearing from the students themselves.

“I think elected officials have an obligation before they speak out, to make sure that they’re being educated on the facts. Leadership is not waking up in the morning and saying ‘blow up a whole school, close the whole school,’ that’s not leadership,” Richards said. “Leadership is waking up and saying okay, this situation happened, let’s go and speak to the different constituencies in the school to find out what the facts are. You know, listen, it’s easy to murder-mouth on Twitter and get 1,000 likes. You’ve got to go out, talk to people so that you can reach their hearts and minds. I’ve always led like that as somebody who’s had my best friend murdered and as somebody who just got back from the Gaza border.”

The Hillcrest rampage occurred two days after Richards returned from a week-long trip to Israel.

“I had to go into a safe room at one point because Hamas launched rockets at the location we were at in Tel Aviv. I was at a kibbutz where there was artillery fire between Hamas and the IDF,” Richards said. “I was in a kibbutz where over 60 people were murdered and the stench of death was still hanging in the air. We saw bullets were lodged in walls in every single apartment where the perpetrators were. This was not some philosophical conversation for me because I was there.”

Richards joined state Sen. John Liu and a delegation of New York elected officials on a solidarity mission to Israel. He returned just two days before the rampage at Hillcrest.Courtesy of Liu’s office
Richards joined state Sen. John Liu and a delegation of New York elected officials on a solidarity mission to Israel. He returned just two days before the rampage at Hillcrest.Courtesy of Liu’s office

He shared some of his experiences with the Hillcrest students.

“Sitting in that circle with those young people, I was able to listen, and what I got from those young adults is that they have so much pent up inside to the point where it’s a powder keg,” Richards said. “Most of those kids were freshmen just coming out of class dismissal and didn’t even know there was a protest going on.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education said there were suspensions but could not provide any details.

“This teacher was absolutely threatened and I can verify that there were definitely arrests made here,” Richards said. “As far as the suspensions, you can’t suspend your way out of this issue. What we need to do is suspend ignorance. We need to suspend hate, and the only way you can do that is through education. You’ve got to cultivate and you have to teach them a lesson, work to make sure that there’s some sort of restorative justice approach. So if you believe in antisemitism, let’s make sure you get to the Holocaust Museum so you can learn more about the background of the Holocaust. If you are Islamophobic, let’s arrange a visit with people who lost loved ones over Islamophobia.”

Especially in Queens.

“We have always been a shining example of what diversity looks like with people from 190 countries speaking 360 languages, whatever happens in the world is going to impact this borough differently,” Richards said. “What I fear is that this war is creating a war within the borough and we have to be careful of the rhetoric we elected officials use because we’re at a tipping point and if it can happen at a place as diverse as Queens it can happen anywhere in New York City.”

Richards added that he would like to see the Department of Education do a better job of building bridges through communication and noted how former borough president Helen Marshall established the Queens General Assembly to do exactly that.

“I have seen Muslims and Jews and Christians and Gentiles work together through the work of the Queens General Assembly and this is very important to continue because you’re putting people in a room together, people who haven’t shared their food, they haven’t shared their philosophies, they haven’t shared who they are as a people. They haven’t talked about their differences,” he said.”So we know that the way to break down the silos of ignorance is through education, through talking to one another.”

Richards has an affinity for Hillcrest High School. His wife graduated from that school and Richards attended P.S. 86 nearby.

“I’ve pumped more than $2 million to Hillcrest High School in the last three years and during a period where you have looming budget cuts to the education department, you have to ask the students why would you destroy your school? Don’t destroy your school because somebody has to pay to fix it,” Richards said. “So the water fountain got torn out of the wall. That’s got to be fixed with money that could have gone to computers. So c’mon young people, don’t destroy your school. It’s your facility. Own it.”