NY Times Opinion: Anti-Semitism can begin in progressive high schools

The long list of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area last year left a lot of people wondering where all the hatred for Jews was coming from. It was quietly noted by a few brave souls that most of the incidents didn’t seem to involve the usual suspects, i.e. white supremacists. On the contrary, video showed that many of the people responsible for anti-Semitic incidents in New York were black. Many of them seemed to be fairly young. So where was all of this coming from?

Jane Coaston wrote a piece for Vox suggesting that some of this hate might be connected to conspiracy theories about Jews which had been spread for decades by the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan. Specifically, Coaston blamed a 1991 book titled The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. But if her piece offered an explanation of the source of the hate, it didn’t offer a vector. How was anti-Semitism being spread around to the point that even high school kids seemed to have picked up on it? Today, the NY Times published a piece by two rabbis which argues that anti-Semitism is being spread in high schools:

We recently spoke to some 500 high school students, teachers and administrators at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx. As the senior rabbis of two major Reform synagogues with which dozens of Fieldston families are affiliated, we presented the Jewish community’s perspectives on the surge in anti-Semitic incidents in our area and throughout the country. We clarified that while we do not claim to represent all Jews, our views do fall within mainstream Jewish opinion.

We shared statistics from the New York City police and the F.B.I. about the pervasiveness of attacks against Jews. We also addressed the controversy that had erupted in the aftermath of Fieldston’s November assembly, in which a guest speaker equated Israelis with Nazis and asserted that Israelis are an example of “victims becoming the perpetrators.” Several hours after we spoke last week, Fieldston fired a teacher who had posted tweets demonizing Zionism. Students reported that while we were speaking, the teacher flipped a middle finger at one of us…

The events at Fieldston have broad importance, and are reflective of a much bigger problem. Anti-Israel activism has spread beyond the college campus and into the elementary and high school classroom. In Newton, Mass., a high school taught that Israel was “murdering and torturing Palestinian women.” In 2016, a Palestinian activist visiting an elementary school classroom in Ithaca, N.Y., inveighed against Israel and called on students to “be the freedom fighter” for the Palestinians…

Jewish parents should be especially worried. When teachers and professors turn the classroom into an arena for anti-Israel animosity, students become unwitting pawns instead of safeguarded learners.

Once again, it has to be pointed out that the students and faculty at Fieldston are known to be progressive. New York magazine said the school considered itself “a standard-bearer in progressive education” which intended to combat racism starting in elementary school. Here’s how the NY Times described what happened at the school last year in an earlier news story:

Fieldston spent much of last year trying to contain a rebellion by its students, some of whom locked themselves in buildings on the school’s campus in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in March to protest what they said was a racist school culture.

The school agreed to many of the students’ demands, including anti-bias training and a commitment to hire more teachers of color…

In November, Kayum Ahmed, a director at the Open Society Foundations philanthropic organization who had been invited to speak at an assembly at the high school, responded to a student’s question about South Africa by linking what Jews endured during the Holocaust to violence against Palestinians in Israel.

As part of an answer about victims of violence becoming perpetrators in South Africa, Mr. Ahmed said, “I use the same example in talking about the Holocaust. That Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel today, they perpetuate violence against Palestinians.”

So if there’s anti-Semitism cropping up at Fieldston, it’s not coming from a cabal of white supremacists, it’s being transmitted from earnest progressives. You can certainly argue that students who engage in anti-Semitic acts are misunderstanding the messages, but it’s still on the schools to be explicitly about where the lines are drawn between political opposition to Israel and anti-Semitism. If even some teachers are struggling with that at Fieldston (and similar schools) then it’s not surprising some students might be as well.