By Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky and David Bernstein
Also be sure to check out “A response from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.”
We are writing out of concern for the recently introduced CESJDS Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) Learning Framework. Both of us have had children who attended and graduated from CESJDS. Both of us are thankful for the in-depth secular and Jewish education our children received while at the school. Both of us appreciate the school’s commitment to critical thinking and Jewish values, which our children have taken with them into college and beyond.
Yet both of us were taken aback at the lack of critical thinking and intellectual openness evident in the CESJDS DEIJ Framework. The school has laudably embraced a commitment to racial justice and to ensuring that its students are committed to related Jewish values, such as “K’dushah (Holiness), V’ahavta L’rei-akha (Loving your Neighbor), Kehillah (Community), and pluralism.” We support the school’s dedication to empowering students to overcome our nation’s legacy of racism and to make the school community fully inclusive.
But we believe that the DEIJ Framework as currently written sacrifices critical thinking and rigorous debate at the altar of “anti-racism,” a specific set of explanations for racial disparities. The underlying ideology holds that there is only one acceptable explanation for racial disparities — systemic or structural racism — and crowds out any alternative explanation. In addition to being intellectually stifling and inimical to critical thinking, the ideology fuels antisemitism on the left, which we saw on full display during the conflict in Gaza this past May. By insisting on an oppressed versus oppressor binary, the ideology sets up Jews and Israel to be portrayed as oppressors and generally erases the Jewish narrative. While Jewish organizations that embrace such a framework don’t intend to reinforce such a binary that harms Jews, the insistence on linking privilege to identity does just that.
In the long term, our country can only lift up marginalized populations and make strides on overcoming racism by living up to our liberal principles, which encourage free inquiry, argument, dissent and critical thinking in education.
The DEIJ Framework starts off by acknowledging the importance of critical thinking and open discourse: “Students will learn to respect divergent thinking to engage people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs in thoughtful discussion.” But then the Framework contradicts the very possibility of open discourse by stating that “Students will recognize that power and privilege influence relationships on interpersonal, intergroup, and institutional levels and consider how they have been affected by those dynamics while identifying figures, groups, events, and a variety of strategies and philosophies relevant to the history of social justice around the world.”
This second statement cited above dictates that teachers impart and students embrace a belief system about power and privilege. There is no mention in the Framework of any other factor that might also explain contemporary social dynamics and disparities. We want to be clear that we are not arguing that the school shouldn’t teach about slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow in historical context. We wholeheartedly endorse such a curriculum. Rather, we are concerned that the DEIJ Framework embraces a set of hotly contested theories of our current social problems. In other words, the Framework presents opinion as fact. These explanations for disparity should be debated by students, not handed to them as doctrine.
We’d be inclined to give the school the benefit of the doubt that it will, in fact, encourage such open discourse but for the “Student Resource” list that follows on the DEIJ webpage. Every article, every website and every video in the Student Resource reinforces the same basic ideological contention about power and privilege.
The author of one recommended article states, “I strongly feel that de-assimilation and the dismantling of whiteness is critical to both the eradication of racism and the survival of the Jewish people.” While we do not have a problem with students reading an article calling for the “dismantling of whiteness,” where is the counterpoint? By neglecting to provide such an alternative perspective, the school is leaving students with a single, highly contentious view on the matter. Indeed, there is no mention in the Student Resource of a single Black heterodox thinker, such as Glenn Loury, John McWhorter or Coleman Hughes, offering an alternative perspective on race and racism. How can students possibly “respect divergent thinking to engage people of diverse backgrounds” if they are presented with a single ideological frame of reference rather than a range of opinions and views? Where is the school’s hallmark commitment to viewpoint diversity?
CESJDS and, indeed, all our educational institutions have a choice: they can expose students to a variety of perspectives about what diversity means for society, or they can prescribe a particular set of theories and explanations for why our society is the way it is. They can teach students how to think or they can teach students what to think. But they can’t do both. We fear that in embracing this particular DEIJ curriculum, CESJDS has signed up for the latter. There are alternatives.
David Bernstein is the Founder of Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV).
Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky is a social worker, writer, researcher and advocate. She is a JILV board member.