Several weeks ago, the leadership of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School received a letter signed by over 100 alumni of the school. The letter was entitled an “Open Letter to the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School Community.” It purported to be an expression of protest. We are witness to many letters and other expressions of protest these days, but this letter was unique.
Signed by some of the most fortunate of our Jewish youths, the letter is startling. It begins with an expression of outrage at the massacre of Oct. 7, but rapidly drifts in a very different direction. By its second sentence, the purpose of the letter becomes apparent: “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 letter continues in this vein with a series of accusations against Israel, echoing some of the worst diatribes to which the Jewish community has been subjected since Oct. 7. Laced with false premises, the letter “classif[ies] Zionism as settler colonialism and Israeli military occupation as apartheid.”
Continuing with vituperative statements undermining Israel’s current existential struggle, the letter builds to a crescendo of sanctimony: “we believe we must extend the lesson of “Never Again” to oppressed communities across the globe, and especially in this moment, to Palestinians undergoing a war fueled by genocidal intent, supposedly in the name of our safety.”
Although we have grown accustomed to seeing demonstrations attacking Israel and Jews on university campuses and in our urban centers, we are still not accustomed to seeing our own young people lash out at us publicly. It is shocking and it is painful.
Importantly, we must remember that the Open Letter did not emanate from a group of no-nothing outsiders. The signatories of the Open Letter are the children of affluent, successful Washington, D.C., suburbanites, whose parents sacrificed to send them to one of our region’s very best Jewish schools. Some of the names of the signatories disclose that they are the children of prominent individuals, who are among the nation’s movers and shakers.
Fortunately, promptly after the issuance of the Open Letter, another such letter was disseminated. This one was signed by several hundred CESJDS alumni, parents and faculty. It took strong issue with the positions articulated in the Open Letter. Not mincing any words, to their credit, the authors of the response accused the signatories of the Open Letter of vile behavior. Very appropriately, they called the Open Letter “not only 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.”
Another letter, written by the leadership of CESJDS, rabbinic and secular, also took issue with the Open Letter, but did so rather more mildly, with a tone of regret rather than reprimand. While reaffirming CESJDS’s commitment to Israel and to Zionism, the leadership felt compelled to laud “critical thinking” and to note that “[w]e teach a dual narrative approach.”
The leadership’s fundamental objection was not with the outrageous substance of the Open Letter, but rather with its tone. “We are committed,” the leadership response stated, “to current students and alumni expressing strong opinions through debate, critique, and critical analysis,” adding only that “[o]ur values dictate that this conversation must be conducted with Derekh Eretz/Respect for One Another.”
In recent weeks, we have tragically become accustomed to hearing about the failings of our American educational institutions. As one Ivy League university after another comes under fire for failing to engage in rigorous teaching and as our K-12 public schools are revealed to be incapable of educating our young, it is almost routine to accept that not hurting the feelings of students is more important than instructing them.
But we have every right to expect that this would not be the case with our Jewish day schools. For many of us, the choice to send our children to such day schools was predicated on the notion that in that environment our children would be taught to think, but to do so on a solid foundation of Jewish knowledge. Importantly, we assumed that the history and traditions of the Jewish people would be instilled so firmly that we could have the comfort of knowing that our young would be Jewish to their very core.
While it is true that we want young Jews to think critically, we want them to do so with a firm footing in our Jewish tradition. We want them to know our history through our eyes, not through the eyes of others. We have a right to expect that teachers will teach, not some neutral pablum that can become fertile ground for anti-Zionism (read, self-hating Jewishness), but rather the powerful, ethical and life affirming principles that have kept the Jewish people vibrant over the course of thousands of years.
It is gratifying to know that literally hundreds of CESJDS alumni and others forcefully took issue with the Open Letter. It remains deeply troubling that such a letter should ever have been necessary. It is also distressing to note the relativist response of the school’s leadership.
After their own experiment with relativism, the leadership of many of the Ivy League schools are finally beginning a process of reevaluation of their ideologically tainted teaching methods and of their focus on opinions more than on knowledge. Perhaps it is time for some of our Jewish day schools to do the same.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of a national law firm. He is the author of “Lobbying For Equality, Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Civil Rights during the French Revolution,” published by HUC Press.