Brooklyn public school faces backlash over controversial Middle East map excluding Israel

P.S. 261
P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill.
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A Brooklyn public school is under fire after one of its teachers displayed a map showing Middle East geography that left out Israel, angering parents and other New Yorkers across the city, according to reports.

Rita Lahoud, a teacher at the Boerum Hill school, allegedly displayed a map titled the “Arab World” on a classroom wall at P.S. 261, where she teaches a program for elementary-age students about Arab culture. 

According to an article in The Free Press, the program is funded by Qatar Foundation International (QFI), which is a U.S.-based member of Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit owned by the country’s ruling family. 

The article shows photos of the map hanging in the classroom under the header of the “Arab World.” In the map, the region where the country of Israel should be is replaced with Palestine.  The map exists despite the fact that there is no internationally recognized Palestinian state, and Israel has been a state since 1948. 

Many parents across the city were upset by the map, taking to social media and traditional media to share their concerns. Both Jewish and non-Jewish New Yorkers expressed anger, asking why it was permitted in the classroom in the first place and why a foreign nation is funding school programs in New York City. 

One Jewish mother from Staten Island whose children attend DOE schools said she felt “betrayed” when she saw photos of the map in the Brooklyn school. She is also a public school teacher in Brooklyn and was a student in the NYC public school system, kindergarten through post graduate.

“The DOE did not properly vet the materials to ensure all are represented,” the mother, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect her job, said. “And if they did, they stabbed us Jewish students and parents in the back by permitting this map be used.” 

She added that she hopes the media attention on the map in the Brooklyn school will compel the DOE to “think twice before accepting foreign funds like this.”

Another mother from the city who requested anonymity said she’s “disgusted” and concerned about where the DOE—a public institution — is getting its funding from.

“No matter what your religion — I’m Catholic — I’m saddened and surprised this isn’t getting more press and outrage,” she said. “As a parent with children in the NYC DOE, I am completely disgusted. The fact that the DOE has accepted money from Qatar to fund this program is unacceptable. Where else are they accepting funding from?”

Some pro-Palestinian commenters on social media have described the map as one that describes only Arabic-speaking countries in the region. 

“The map says the ‘Arab World’ because it describes the Arabic-speaking countries in the region,” one Facebook commenter said. “The Middle East is the Arab world and it includes Palestinians. Israelis speak Hebrew, so no, Israel is not part of the Arab world. Palestinians are.”

Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Education, said after hearing concerns from New Yorkers, the map is now out of the classroom.

We are committed to fostering a welcoming environment here at NYCPS that supports all cultures and communities,” Styer said. “As soon as we were made aware of concerns regarding the map it was removed.”

Messages sent to QFI inquiring about the funding of the culture program at the school were not returned. 

Advocates for Israel and politicians react

Gerry Tomchinsky is a Jewish father originally from NYC who now lives in Florida. He’s also an advocate for Israel and has family there. As a product of the New York public school system himself, he said he’s “infuriated” that the map was displayed. 

The father of two said he’s concerned that the New York education system is accepting funding from a foreign entity that is providing inaccurate information being taught to kids. 

“Look at what’s been going on over there for the last five, seven, 10 years. Little by little, it’s revisionist history,” Tomchinsky said. “They are taking what is actual factual history and revising it to fit their narrative.”

He added that if he still lived in NYC, he wouldn’t keep his kids in public schools. 

“If my daughter was in NYC public schools with this stuff going on…I don’t see an upside to this or this changing any time soon,” Tomchinsky said. “I would pull my kids out of the public school system immediately. I came up in the NYC public school system, but it’s not what it used to be.”

A DOE social studies teacher said she understands and sympathizes with parents who are upset. Wanting to remain anonymous, she, too, is disappointed in how the agency has been communicating with staff about the Israel-Hamas war since the terror attacks on Oct. 7 last year, adding that she’s not surprised a public school would display a map of the Middle East omitting Israel.

“It’s not an accurate map of the region. It’s frustrating for a lot of reasons,” the teacher said. “The DOE has, in my opinion, been — not overtly — but rather supportive of the Palestinian side, including the materials they sent out when this first happened. You can’t lie about what is on a map.”

According to The Free Press article, QFI has donated over $1 million to the NYC DOE from 2019 to 2022. 

Some elected officials are also letting their voices be heard on the topic. U.S. Rep. Dan Goldman, whose district includes P.S. 261, told the New York Post he’s “concerned about this issue,” and is looking more into the matter.