David Banks testifies on antisemitism in schools before House subcommittee

Congress has been a tough place to visit for educational leaders recently.

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks testifies before a tense House subcommittee hearing.

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks testifies before a tense House subcommittee hearing. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks forcefully pushed back on accusations that the nation’s largest K-12 system has allowed antisemitism to fester, emphasizing that all forms of hate have no place in the city’s public schools while testifying before members of a Republican-led congressional subcommittee.

“Antisemitism doesn’t simply affect Jews, antisemitism affects all of us, particularly all people of good will,” Banks said at a Wednesday hearing centered on antisemitism in K-12 schools. “I stand up not only against antisemitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of hate. You can’t put them in silos. That’s not the way that we can be responsible about how we are going to approach this.”

Republicans in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce have aggressively grilled a number of university presidents about the alleged rise in antisemitism on their campuses in wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Ramifications of the high-profile hearings have been sweeping. Backlash over their performances caused Harvard University President Claudine Gay and University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill to resign as a result. Student protesters set up the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University after President Minouche Shafik vowed to crack down on campus antisemitism while testifying before the committee. That encampment, along with police arresting demonstrators the next day, spurred a national movement of other Pro-Palestine students following suit on their own campuses.

As tensions continue to ramp up at colleges across the country, Wednesday’s hearing in the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education marked a shift in congressional Republicans turning their attention to K–12 schools. Unlike the university leaders, Banks weathered the barrage of tough questions as he acknowledged that hate speech and harassment are a major problem for the district while also pushing back on some allegations of antisemitism. School district leaders from Berkely, California, and Montgomery County in Maryland also testified.

Banks detailed a bevy of actions the New York City Education Department has taken to fight hate with education. He said both students and faculty members who’ve been antisemitic have been disciplined, and he presented data that the department has had 281 “incidents” since Oct. 7 but did not clarify what that meant. (About 42% of those incidents involved antisemitism and 30% involved Islamophobia).

Many of the fiercer clashes with Banks came from House Republicans – including from Reps. Elise Stefanik and Brandon Williams – who accused Banks for what they said was “turning a blind eye” to a rise in antisemitism and for not swiftly enacting harsh discipline on offending students and faculty members.

Banks said that the Education Department has suspended at least 30 students and has “removed, disciplined or are in the process of disciplining” at least a dozen staff and school leaders since Oct. 7, including removing the Hillcrest High School principal from his post. He later confirmed the principal was reassigned to a nonstudent-facing position. All 1,600 principals have been retrained on the department’s discipline code to ensure it is enforced properly, Banks said.

The fact that the ex-principal was still employed by the department drew the ire of Stefanik, who garnered attention for her relentless questioning of university presidents in recent months.

“That’s concerning to me that you have him in a senior position,” she said. “And what’s very concerning about these hearings is that we’re getting not only lip service but a lack of enforcement and a lack of accountability. These rules and policies matter.”

Banks pushed back on Stefanik’s claims that students had allegedly marched through the halls of a Brooklyn high school chanting “death to Israel and kill the Jews.”

“We have done our investigation and found no evidence that there was any movement through the halls saying ‘death to the Jews.’ I treat that very, very seriously,” Banks said, acknowledging that they did find that “deeply troubling antisemitic things” had happened at the school. A number of students were suspended as a result, he added.

Williams chastised Banks for not taking stronger action against the principal and students at Hillcrest High School, saying “kids in your school district got the idea it was OK to have open season on Jews in New York City public schools.”

“How can Jewish students feel safe at New York City schools when you can’t even manage to terminate the principal of open season on Jews high school,” Williams asked. “How can Jewish students go to school knowing that he is still on your payroll?”

“I know whose payroll it is,” Banks fired back. “And it’s not open season on Jews school, it’s called Hillcrest High School.” He added that the former principal was removed from his position because his leadership wasn’t strong enough for him to remain, but every employee who works in schools has “due process rights.” Most New York City employees belong to a union, making firing a complicated, often lengthy process.

Banks, a former school safety officer, cautioned that discipline was only one piece of the puzzle. “We cannot simply discipline our way out of this program,” he said. “The true antidote to ignorance and bias is to teach.”

The department has unfurled or announced a series of initiatives in recent months to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate. In January, Banks said the city would roll out new training this spring for middle and high school principals on “navigating difficult conversations” amid tensions over the Israel-Hamas war. He has also emphasized that the department formed an interfaith council and worked to create teaching curricula centered on Muslim and Jewish history. The department also plans to launch a Holocaust teaching guide this fall in collaboration with the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Banks held his ground during the attacks from the roughly two-hour hearing. Toward the end of this testimony, he suggested that the subcommittee was more concerned with producing viral moments than it actually is “solving for antisemitism” – the answer of which lies in education.

“I would call on Congress, quite frankly, to put the call out to action, to bring us together to talk about how we solve for this,” he said. “This convening for too many people across America in education feels like the ultimate gotcha moment. It doesn’t sound like people who are actually trying to solve for something that I believe we should be doing everything we can to solve for.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, pointed to the hypocrisy of some of his fellow members of Congress – who aren’t teachers – decrying antisemitism while working in a building that doesn’t reference the Black people who built the country and the fact that colonists took the country over from Native Americans.

“Do you know how many Black statues there are down in the Capitol? Three. Do you know how many confederate statues are in the Capitol? Twelve. I work in an institution that teaches hate, yet we’re scolding you as educators who have been doing an exemplary job fighting against hate in our schools,” he said. “Thank you for your work. Please continue to educate us.”