By Lincoln Aftergood, Naomi Gould and Oren Swagel
Special to WJW
We are members of a group of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School seniors who are choosing to respond to “An open letter to the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School” by Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky and David Bernstein (Opinion, Oct. 14) independently of our school.
Our opinions outlined here have no affiliation with the school, and we seek to defend it only because we believe this critique to be a grave misjudgment of the curriculum and what it stands for. With that, we feel that this article is not a reflection of our own ideological beliefs, and out of concern for their safety and privacy, two additional authors have elected to remain anonymous.
We believe that CESJDS teaches its students critical analysis, how to evaluate bias and how to find trustworthy sources. Shufutinsky and Bernstein state that their children have taken “critical thinking and Jewish values” with them to college, a ready acknowledgment of the abilities we just outlined. We believe that we are equally prepared to discuss and research racism in a way that encourages “free inquiry, argument, dissent and critical thinking.”
In the spirit of free inquiry, we would like to re-evaluate some of Shufutinsky and Bernstein’s claims about anti-racism as an ideology. They state that anti-racism “holds that there is only one acceptable explanation for racial disparities,” “fuels antisemitism on the left” and “insists on an oppressed versus oppressor binary.” Shufutinsky and Bernstein misunderstand what it means to teach anti-racism when they state that it promotes only one acceptable explanation for racial disparities. According to Boston University, “Anti-Racism is the practice of actively identifying and opposing racism,” not an ideology. In our experience, CESJDS only includes anti-racism in its curricula as part of its efforts to teach us to practice tikkun olam (repair of the world, or social justice).
Furthermore, the authors’ claim that anti-racism fuels antisemitism is baseless. Anti-racism is not inherently related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially considering how the latter is a dispute about land and self-determination, not race. Moreover, in direct response to the authors’ claim, insinuating that antisemitism is inherent in any critique of Israel is a dangerous precedent for Jews to set as it leaves us helpless in critically assessing the nation that CESJDS has taught us to love dearly.
Finally, anti-racism does not necessitate an “oppressed versus oppressor” binary, and it especially does not inherently paint Israel as an oppressive state. In fact, anti-racism does not call for the vilification of Israel at all; if anything, it leads to necessary accountability of the policies of both the Israeli and Palestinian governments.
Additionally, the authors claim that the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) Learning Framework “presents opinion as fact.” However, the framework also clearly mentions how students will be taught to “make principled decisions” about how to respond to social injustice, “[evaluate] what strategies work” to combat bias and approach all of these discussions in an “open-minded” fashion. The very foundations of the DEIJ framework support empowering students to form their own conclusions; they do not mislead students by presenting opinion as fact. This is something we’ve already experienced first-hand in our classrooms at CESJDS.
As students, many of us “lifers” at the school, we feel that we have a unique perspective to add to the conversation. In class discussions and lectures, it’s impressed upon us how much CESJDS values our ability to reach our own conclusions about complex topics. Despite Shufutinsky and Bernstein’s concerns, we are not indoctrinated into believing any one thing about the nature of racism in this country, aside from our responsibility to combat intolerance and hatred. There has always been an important distinction at our school made between exposure to different perspectives and taking them as fact. For years, the faculty and administration have given us the tools to analyze different viewpoints and develop independent opinions on the world around us, and we trust them to continue doing so with future students using the DEIJ framework.
We question the relevance of this letter as a critique of CESJDS as it brings no mention of what actually occurs inside the school. Shufutinsky and Bernstein, despite being respected members of the Jewish community and parents of alumni, simply do not have the same perspective on and knowledge of the school as students do.
In the spirit of considering diverse opinions and being critical thinkers through an evidence-based approach, we second Rabbi Mitchel Malkus’ invitation to the authors. We hope that Shufutinsky and Bernstein can come see firsthand how CESJDS teaches its students and hopefully be able to engage in a more productive discussion about how our school is run.
Lincoln Aftergood, Naomi Gould and Oren Swagel are seniors at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.