How David Banks, the New York City Chancellor, Prepared for a Congressional Grilling

How David Banks, the New York City Chancellor, Prepared for a Congressional Grilling

David C. Banks consulted his top deputies. As the police cleared out pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had seized a building at Columbia University last week, he was there on campus — and went inside to survey the scene.

At a recent meeting with reporters, Mr. Banks, the New York City schools chancellor, outlined the ways he had prepared to testify on Wednesday in front of a subcommittee of the House Education and Work Force Committee examining antisemitism in schools, as student demonstrations have intensified in response to the Israel-Hamas war.

He can expect a grilling over concerns of antisemitism at city schools, including at his alma mater, Hillcrest High School in Queens. In recent months, Republican members of the committee have aggressively questioned leaders from some of the nation’s most elite universities over accusations that they have allowed antisemitic harassment and hate to fester on their campuses. Two presidents, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Liz Magill of University of Pennsylvania, eventually resigned, in part because of a strong backlash over their performance in Congress.

Another president, Nemat Shafik of Columbia University, returned to upheaval on her own campus, which she sought to contain by calling in the police to arrest hundreds of students and other activists. In recent days, she opted to cancel the school’s main graduation ceremony anyway, angering many students and families.

Mr. Banks offered little insight into how he might tackle questions on thorny issues that public schools districts have faced, like how to discipline students when protests over the war veer into hate speech or how to respond to teachers’ social media posts supporting the Palestinian cause.

But he is expected to deliver a message that both antisemitism and all other forms of hate have no place in public schools. The chancellor said that as a Black man “who is keenly aware of the trauma and pain and oppression that my own people have suffered in America,” he feels for the families both of Israeli hostages and of children killed in Gaza.

“That’s not an issue of taking sides,” Mr. Banks said.

And he has said during that he would tell Congress that he had striven to promote “a culture of respect and acceptance” throughout his career.

The travails of the presidents who have come before illustrate the difficult balance Mr. Banks must strike. New York City is one of the most diverse school districts in the world with large number of Jewish, Arab and Muslim families. He must convince Jewish families at home that the district will quell bigotry in schools, while also avoiding the ire of Arab and Muslim educators, some of whom have criticized his leadership since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel.

Mr. Banks vowed to not appear defensive over the district’s record on antisemitism: Schools have faced intolerance and hate, he acknowledged, while adding that “we’ve gotten a handle on a lot of it.”

But the chancellor also signaled that he might not adopt an entirely conciliatory approach. In an apparent reference to some Republican lawmakers, he told reporters last week that “trying to create gotcha moments” is not “how you solve problems.”

“I fundamentally believe that if we truly care about solving antisemitism, you don’t do it through cheap political theater,” Mr. Banks said.

He will outline several local efforts to combat hate, including recent training for principals on discipline and navigating “difficult conversations” and the creation of an interfaith advisory panel. The city will also release a Holocaust teaching guide in the fall and two curriculum series on Jewish and Muslim Americans next year.

Mr. Banks, who has twice traveled to Israel, added that he was “profoundly moved” on a visit to Yad Vashem, the country’s official Holocaust memorial.

After watching university leaders at the two prior hearings on antisemitism, Mr. Banks said his greatest takeaway was simply to be authentic.

“I’m from New York,” he said. “So I’m not intimidated by the process at all.”

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