Menu JTA Search

Mideast conflict hits N.Y. school

NEW YORK, May 11 (JTA) — Just weeks an elite New York prep school canceled a lecture by two Palestinians following protests from students and parents that it was anti-Israel, a new program on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — this time featuring a Jewish anti-Zionist as well as a Palestinian one on a main panel — saw a protest led by numerous Jewish leaders across the political and denominational spectrum. By Tuesday afternoon, as the rescheduled daylong program proceeded on the Bronx campus of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, nearly a dozen rabbis were joined by more than 100 protesters. The demonstrators waved signs expressing outrage that the single mandatory plenum culminating the Israel-Palestine day of study would exclude any pro-Israel speaker to counter professors Tony Judt and Rashid Khalidi, both of whom are self-described anti-Zionists supportive of radical Palestinian claims. A letter to the school from several rabbis warned that the program was “grossly unbalanced,” but several Fieldston students who had heard Judt speak previously told the student newspaper that they “were struck by his evenhandedness.” The fresh Fieldston protests were first reported last Friday by The Jewish Week on its Web site. Judt, of New York University, has written that the idea of a Jewish state is a political anachronism, and has recently supported the highly publicized critique of Harvard’s Stephen Walt and the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer that Israel wields too much influence over American foreign policy. Khalidi, of Columbia University, has been supportive of the Palestinian intifada against Israeli “occupation” and has said he supports the killing of Israeli soldiers but not civilians. Though the rabbis had been trying to negotiate with Fieldston about adding a pro-Israel speaker, sources inside Fieldston say the school administrators had given Judt and Khalidi veto power over who could share the stage with them. A school dean and history teacher, David Swartwout, one of the primary event organizers, confirmed to the Fieldston News that Judt and Khalidi would not allow anyone else to share their panel on the future of Israel and Palestine; the professors were concerned, he said, that a third speaker “might hinder their ability to have a productive discussion.” Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute in the Bronx, was nominated to be on the panel by Swartwout and others but was rejected by the planning committee for being “too much of a lightning rod,” wrote the Fieldston News. The rabbi was then part of a side panel on religion but he withdrew last Friday, telling The Jewish Week he felt “violated” and “duped” by the school. Rather than participate, Weiss helped organized the protest. “I’m not going to let this happen in my backyard,” he said. Fieldston administrators declined requests for an interview. Ginger Curwen, Fieldston’s communications director, released a statement stating, “As educators we have the responsibility to teach students about difficult issues.” She pointed out that in the course of the day, more than 25 speakers addressed the students about the Middle East and human rights, religion, media coverage and prospects for peace. Weiss said he supported the rights of Judt and Khalidi to be on a panel and was only protesting the exclusion of a Zionist voice. However, in several e-mail exchanges obtained by The Jewish Week, one parent asked another, regarding Weiss, “Would the rabbi say he has nothing against Hitler speaking to the students in a balanced forum?” Other parents charged that unapologetic bigotry against any group — except for Jews — would never be tolerated at a Fieldston educational event. On the protest line outside Fieldston, Arnold Stark, the father of two Fieldston alumni, said he wouldn’t give “another cent” to this school that he once supported, expressing his disappointment at discovering that Fieldston’s openness and diversity was a courtesy seemingly extended to everyone but Zionists like him. Few Jewish protests in recent years enjoyed the wide support that was apparent at this one. Aside from Rabbi Adam Starr, also of Hebrew Institute, Weiss was joined by Rabbi Steven Burton, of the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue; Rabbi Barry Dov Katz of the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale; Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, Orthodox, of the Riverdale Jewish Center; and Rabbi Levi Shemtov, of Chabad-Lubavitch of Riverdale; together representing the five largest congregations in the Bronx, with many Fieldston students among their members. The school is said to be two-thirds Jewish. The protest was also joined by Rev. Josephine Cameron, of the Riverdale Presbyterian Church, and via statements issued by U.S. Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and state Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. Engel called Fieldston’s forum “merely propaganda,” and Dinowitz called Judt and Khalidi “anti-Semites,” while blasting Fieldston’s administrators for their “incredible irresponsibility.” The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress also issued strong protests. As protests grew, the Judt-Khalidi event was restricted to students only and the content of their presentations was not available. Katz told The Jewish Week that he agreed that although Fieldston made “a very unfortunate and dangerous choice” in the plenum, there were several panelists he believes are worth hearing. Among the participants sympathetic with Israel were William Helmreich, a sociologist at CUNY and a former president of the Salute to Israel Parade; New Yorker editor David Remnick; and Ha’aretz correspondent Shmuel Rosner. The most popular session to open the day was a showing of Isidore Rosmarin’s acclaimed “Blood And Tears,” a documentary covering everything from pre-state history to the aftermath of the Gaza disengagement, with the film straining for balance with Hamas leaders and Israeli prime ministers, journalists and academics, terrorists and victims, all given equal time. Although the film was balanced, a panel of experts — professor Muhammad Muslih of Long Island University, Helmreich and Rosmarin — spoke to the students following the film and went nearly 25 minutes without once mentioning the word “terrorism.” Instead, students were told about Israel’s “occupation,” “humiliation” of Palestinians, Israeli “control” of Palestinian lives, Israel’s responsibility for the collapse of the Oslo agreements, and how both sides had a seemingly equal number of violent “extremists” against peace. Students were told about the horrors of Israeli checkpoints that harass Palestinians, without anyone suggesting that a terror war might be the reason for inconveniences common to a war zone. After the session a cluster of 13-year-olds each told The Jewish Week that they were now more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Helmreich, who admitted that he initially tried to be politically “balanced” and non-confrontational as a defensive tactic in the hostile environment, told The Jewish Week that he got much more applause later in the day when he defended Israel more vigorously. “I came away realizing that if you speak with passion and you can back it up,” said Helmreich, “you can get away with it. These students are ready to learn and at that age they can learn a lot.”