Hundreds of alumni, staff and families of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School alumni signed one of three letters that either criticized or supported the Rockville school’s Israel education program in very heated terms.
In the initial letter that took the school to task, alumni wrote that their Israel education was “defined by false narratives and glaring omissions.”
The letter continued, “This pedagogy, a mainstay of American Jewish institutions, is designed to funnel generations of Jewish youth toward unconditional support for Israel’s militarism and war crimes.”
Shortly after that letter was spread, current and former staff, students and families condemned it, calling it “shameful in its impressive level of lies, propaganda, misinformation and blatant falsehoods, but more so in its unique distinction of being written and circulated by fellow Jews, our own people.”
Then a third letter began circulating. It, too, criticized the initial letter. “Rather than have a meaningful conversation about Israeli policy, the “Community Open Letter” reflects sanctimony rather than empathy towards a people in profound mourning and utterly lacks nuance and critical thought.”
The letter also noted, “It comes as a shock to many of us that our fellow alumni would spread vicious blood libels about Israel like calling it an apartheid or colonial state or characterizing the war in Gaza as fueled by “genocidal intent.” Any good human being would abhor colonialism, apartheid, and genocide. Using that language to indict Israel and in a form that is definitionally wrong is extremely dangerous.”
Added the letter writers, “We are horrified to see the promotion of insidious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories coming from those in our own community.”
Washington Jewish Week spoke with two of the original letter signees, who would not speak on the record. One informed the letter organizers that WJW wanted to speak with them. They had not reached out by press time.
WJW also called or emailed several people at CESJDS but was unable to speak with anyone at the school.
Each of the three letters bore numerous signatures. As people continue to sign all the letters that are spread on the internet and through friends, it is difficult to get a proper count.
On Dec. 18, a letter from Head of School Rabbi Mitchel Malkus and Board President Ayala Nuriely Kimel was sent to CESJDS friends, family and alumni stating, “We were deeply hurt and disappointed by some of the views that were expressed and also by the way some of them were expressed.”
The school is committed to Israel, its people and the Jewish people’s right to self-expression in the land of Israel, they wrote.
“We reject terms like apartheid and colonialism being applied to Israel. We teach a dual narrative approach and expose our students to multiple perspectives in our Israel education, something that was not acknowledged by all our alumni,” the two officials wrote, noting, “A core value of the school is pluralism.”
In the original letter, the former students, who all listed their graduation year, said they were devastated by Hamas’ massacre on Oct. 7 and the hostage situation as well as “the injustice of arbitrary Palestinian detainment, and the horrors inflicted upon Gaza by Israel. We are also deeply concerned by Israel’s grave violations of human rights and international law, not only since October 7th but over the last 75 years throughout Palestine.”
The signers called themselves diverse and noted they include those with family and loved ones in Israel.
“Some of us feel strongly about classifying Zionism as settler colonialism and Israeli military occupation as apartheid, while others among us struggle with that language,” they wrote. “What unites us is our grief and outrage. Our collective pain moves us to ask hard questions of ourselves and of our Jewish communities about what support for Israel has cost, and what atrocities it justifies in our name.”
The letter continued, “We believe that every person is created in God’s image, that every life is a world in and of itself. We refuse to forfeit this belief when it comes to Palestinians.”
The letter signers thanked their school for teaching them to think critically, which helped them “affirm that critique of Zionism and Israel is neither antisemitic nor a betrayal of Judaism or Jewish community; rather, these profound critiques stem from our commitment to Jewish values.”
Both the second and third letters strongly countered accusations in the original letter and included many of the same points and same wording.
Both pointed out the first letter was written “by a small minority of CESJDS alumni and yet is attempting to control a narrative and speak for the majority of us.”
The signers of the first letter are a “small group of self-hating Jews” who signed “from a lofty position of privilege where they have the luxury to ponder fairness, proportionality, and Jewish values while Israeli mothers and fathers send their children into a war for the Jewish people’s survival,” according to the rebuttal letters.
One refuting letter wrote that the original comments are “against every Jewish and Zionist value ingrained in us by our school and by our religion.” It also criticized the first letter for arguing that Judaism and Zionism are separate.
Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer.