Teaching American kids about Arab culture and Israel (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By ABRAHAM H. FOXMAN 03/27/12)
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When the notorious, crusading anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon was recently
invited to play his music, speak and disseminate his writings at
Friends Seminary, a New York City private school, strong objections
were raised by a number of people, including Harvard University law
school professor Alan Dershowitz, and a number of organizations,
including the Anti-Defamation League.
Friends is a Quaker-affiliated school. It has an excellent academic
reputation and many Jewish students attend. In response to the
criticisms, the school administration said it was not aware that
Atzmon, a jazz saxophonist, was anti-Semitic. They acknowledged that
someone of his views should not be allowed to speak to students and
indicated had they known what his views were, he would not have been
The story, however, doesn’t end or even begin there. As I write this,
a Friends Seminary group of six faculty and 19 high school students
is visiting the Israel/West Bank region. It is what is taking place
on this trip and, indeed, what goes on at the school regarding Israel
and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that make the decision to invite
someone like Atzmon to speak to students so disturbing.
As we have come to learn, the participants will be spending most of
their time in the West Bank meeting with Palestinians. The trip is
billed as a cultural one and the youngsters will have overnight stays
with Palestinian families over a five-day period. In addition, they
will be developing oral histories of those families. There is, of
course, nothing intrinsically wrong in doing these things. But
because of the intensely personal nature of the home visits in the
West Bank, which will expose the group only to a Palestinian
perspective, these visits should be balanced by similar experiences
with Israelis within Israel.
While we understand the students are also spending three days in
Israel, they will not be meeting with Israeli families and they will
not be visiting important venues like the Holocaust memorial Yad
The imbalanced structure of the trip would be troubling enough on its
own. When combined, however, with the fact that one of the faculty
members leading the trip is a history teacher with well-known anti-
Israel views, which he promotes at the school, the concerns grow
exponentially. He is the main teacher of history at Friends for 10th
grade students. By all accounts, he presents the students a
completely biased and one-sided version of events in the Middle East.
A prime example of his approach has been related by some of his
students: in his World History class, when he devotes one day to
Israel, his two primary sources have been reported to be a speech by
former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a paper by the American
Friends Service Committee. AFSC, as it is known, has a long history
of one-sided advocacy against the State of Israel. For another
example, he has said that the word “terrorist” is too subjective a
word to describe a suicide bomber. We have been told similar examples
It is clear, in talking to a number of parents, that the teacher’s
approach is one that does not have a counter for impressionable high
school students within the school curriculum. On the contrary, it is
strongly reinforced by the kind of trip going on now, and by certain
One would think that school administrators would ask some questions
about taking high school kids to the Middle East and devising such a
pro-Palestinian schedule. After all, Israel is America’s main ally in
the region, a number of the students are Jewish, and balance is one
of the school’s valued and oft-stated educational goals.
What seems to be happening therefore at Friends is a familiar and
disturbing phenomenon. An institution gets so comfortable presenting
a distorted, anti-Israel version of historical and current events in
the Middle East that it does not or will not recognize how easily
what seems like criticisms of Israel can veer into anti-Semitism.
Then, when obvious anti-Semitism in the person of Atzmon rears its
ugly head, there are statements by the same institution
saying “that’s not what we are about.” But the environment has been
created and the damage has been done.
What should this Friends school do to truly repair the damage?
Apologies for inviting an anti-Semitic speaker are a start, yet they
do not get to the heart of the problem.
The school has every right to present diverse views regarding Israel
and the conflict. What it must move away from is the environment of a
one-sided, anti-Israel viewpoint as the norm, which quite often
allows even well-meaning people to miss the appearance of anti-
Semitism in their midst.
Words have consequences. History teaches that lesson to us time and
again, most recently in Toulouse. And when it comes to words that can
be understood as biased against the Jewish people, particular
attention must be paid considering the horrendous consequences in the
past and in the very world we live in today. Educators especially
have this responsibility.
The writer is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. (©
1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 03/27/12)
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