In a Jan. 16 New York Times op-ed, two New York rabbis warned that anti-Israel rhetoric in high schools could lead to anti-Semitism.
Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Joshua Davidson and Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Ammiel Hirsch wrote that they recently had spoken at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx about the rise of anti-Semitism in New York City.
“We emphasized in our remarks that for centuries, anti-Semitism emerged from both the right and the left of the political spectrum,” they wrote. “We described what far-right anti-Semitism looks like, but, since we are liberal rabbis, we spent most of our time discussing anti-Semitism among the left. It’s especially important for us to speak against hate in our own camp.”
Davidson and Hirsch acknowledged that although criticism of the Israeli government isn’t anti-Semitic, they argued that it is anti-Semitic to compare Israel with the Nazis and equate Zionism with racism.
“Why is Israel the only country in the world whose right to exist is not just questioned but actively campaigned against?” the rabbis asked. “Israel’s enemies protest that they are simply anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, yet their view of justice requires eliminating the one and only Jewish state. And they attack it with such venom. Their hatred of Israel is a primal loathing.”
They highlighted two recent events at Fieldston: Columbia Law School lecturer Kayum Ahmed reportedly comparing Israel with the Nazis in November, and Fieldston firing history teacher JB Brager on Jan. 9 after she expressed anger that Davidson and Hirsch were speaking at the school because they had criticized “anti-Zionist intersectionality.” She had also tweeted shortly after Ahmed’s reported comments, “I refuse to ‘reaffirm the value’ of ethno-nationalist settler colonialism.” Davidson and Hirsch wrote that they had heard from students saying that during their speech, Brager “flipped a middle finger at one of us.”
These two events highlight how hatred of Israel has metastasized from college campuses into high schools and elementary schools, they argued.
“In Newton, Mass., a high school taught that Israel was ‘murdering and torturing Palestinian women,’ ” the rabbis wrote. “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.”
Eventually, such anti-Israel rhetoric descends into anti-Semitism, Davidson and Hirsch argued.
“Anti-Israel activity on some college campuses has led to verbal and even physical assaults on Jewish students,” the rabbis wrote. “And we must be honest with ourselves. It is happening in our space — in the heart of intellectual liberalism.”
They added: “When teachers and professors turn the classroom into an arena for anti-Israel animosity, students become unwitting pawns instead of safeguarded learners. They should feel they can ask questions without fear of scorn, explore their own ideas and draw their own conclusions.”
Davidson and Hirsch concluded their op-ed by urging communities to pressure schools into ensuring that both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are taught in class in addition to tolerance.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that the op-ed is a “thoughtful and important piece.”
— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) January 16, 2020
In Jan. 15 congressional testimony, Greenblatt discussed how anti-Zionist rhetoric can alienate Jews, especially those on college campuses.
“Rejection of Zionism and the Jewish state is imposed as a litmus test to determine whether individual Jews — or Jewish groups — exhibit sufficient progressive bona fides to warrant inclusion in progressive circles or initiatives,” Greenblatt said. “This singles out Jews and can exclude and discriminate against them in ways to which no other religious group faces. Although the rhetoric that moves from criticism of Israeli policies to wholesale rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state and those who support its right to exist is hard to quantify, its impact on some parts of the Jewish American community cannot be overstated.”