A Test That Failed

Physical attacks on Israel of late have come largely from Hamas in Gaza and individual murderers and would-be murderers within the country’s borders. But a relentless barrage of propaganda bombs lobbed at the Middle East’s only true democracy has been a mainstay over many years of governments, media and an assortment of lone wolves armed with destructive words and images.

It is rare, and therefore worthy of note, when an entity that has been used to spread anti-Israel propaganda owns up to its error and admits that it acted unfairly.

The New York State Education Department is an unlikely place for an anti-Israel buck to stop, but that government agency was in fact ultimately responsible for an attempt to poison young minds with an image of Israel that could only, and charitably, be called an “alternate fact.”

The story began with a state global studies Regents exam. That exam is part of a multi-subject set of tests prepared by a conference of selected New York teachers of each test’s specific discipline, and designed to ascertain whether high school students have achieved proficiency in secular studies and critical thinking. Like any academic test, though, it is a teacher of sorts, too, particularly in topics like global studies, where material placed before the test-takers for analysis contains information and perspectives.

On the global studies test administered on January 24 this year, students taking the exam were asked to identify the main idea of a presented political cartoon. The several years old cartoon, drawn by Chris Britt, then of the Illinois State Journal-Register, depicted three large, armed soldiers, one with a “star of David” on his back, taking cover behind an overturned table, as one of them shoots a gun toward a town’s burning buildings, and other soldiers in the distance fire on the town as well. One of the soldiers in the foreground says, “I knew this peace table would come in handy someday.”

Students who took the test were asked, “What is the main idea of the cartoon?” The multiple-choice answers provided were: “Peace talks have led to a cease-fire”; “The conflict is near an end”; “Negotiations have failed”; and “Key groups have been brought to the peace table.”

There weren’t options for marking “Israeli soldiers are bad, and grossly overweight, too,” or “Israel destroys Arab towns, and its soldiers joke about it” or “Israel isn’t interested in peace.” But perhaps there should have been. All of those ideas were arguably communicated by the cartoon.

Several teachers who administered the exam brought complaints about the cartoon to State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), who called the test offering “pure, unadulterated anti-Israel propaganda.”

At first, an Education Department spokesman defended the use of the cartoon, explaining that it was intended simply to measure “the students’ ability to analyze a political cartoon, understand the cartoonist’s point of view and apply that information to the questions being asked.”

But some members of the public weren’t mollified. The American Jewish Congress garnered more than 1,300 signatures on a petition protesting the use of the cartoon, calling it “blatantly anti-Israel, disparaging of Israeli soldiers … and entirely inappropriate to include on a test administered to young minds.” The AJC sent the petition to Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and to the State Education Department.

Several weeks later, the department issued a statement saying: “We regret this test question was included in the Regents exam and apologize to those who were offended by it. We are reviewing our internal procedures to vet all questions to ensure inappropriate questions are not included on future exams.”

The department added that: “Political cartoons contained on Regents exams are sometimes very pointed and thought-provoking, but they are never intended to represent the point of view of the Board of Regents or the Education Department on a given issue.”

The issue, though, wasn’t whether the misleading, slanderous cartoon represented those agencies’ point of view. It was whether putting such one-sided, prejudiced material before teenagers was appropriate or defensible.

It was neither.

Despite the State Education department’s irrelevant addendum, though, the fact that it apologized for including the offensive material is laudable. As Assemblyman Hikind said, after the apology was offered, “Better late than never.”

Better still, however, will be the department’s making good on its promise to review its procedures — some teacher, after all, made the decision to include the cartoon, and others reviewed it and apparently found it innocuous — and to better examine all questions on future Regents exams.