Just weeks after the elite Fieldston prep school canceled a lecture by two Palestinians in the wake of harsh protests from student and parents claiming it was anti-Israel, a new daylong program on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict set for May 9 has ignited new protests from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis charging the event will be "grossly unbalanced."
The fresh protests center on the program's final school-wide event that will feature professors Tony Judt and Rashid Khalidi — both of whom are self-described anti-Zionists — discussing their vision for the future of the Middle East. Fieldston, the high school of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, has refused to place a third speaker, a supporter of Israel, on that final panel, according to the rabbis.
Judt, of New York University, has written that the idea of a Jewish state is a political anachronism, and has recently supported the highly publicized critique of Harvard's Stephen Walt and the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer that Israel wields too much influence over American foreign policy. Khalidi, of Columbia University, has been supportive of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli "occupation" and has supported the killing of Israeli soldiers, though not civilians.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, who was scheduled to participate in a panel, though not the school-wide event that's attracted the greatest protest, told The Jewish Week he felt "violated" and "duped" by the school's final program. He said he was not only withdrawing from his panel earlier in the day, but was considering demonstrating outside Fieldston during the event to alert students to what he called the event's unfairness.
"I'm not going to let this happen in my backyard," said Rabbi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, just blocks away from the school.
Aside from Rabbi Adam Starr, of HIR, Rabbi Weiss was joined by two other rabbis from across the denominational and political spectrum: Rabbi Steven Burton, of the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue, and Rabbi Barry Dov Katz of the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale, three of the four largest congregations in the Bronx.
Rabbi Katz, who told The Jewish Week that he felt some of the day's programming did present diverse opinion, nevertheless felt the Fieldston made "a very unfortunate and dangerous choice" in Judt and Khalidi. Among the participants sympathetic with Israel are William Helmreich, a sociologist at City College, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and Haaretz correspondent Shmuel Rosner.
Rabbi Weiss said, "It would be difficult to find two more anti-Israel speakers [than Judt and Khalidi.] I called Fieldston and offered to try and get someone like Ambassador Dennis Ross or Alan Dershowitz or David Makovsky [of The Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process] but John Love, the principal, refused and he wasn't willing to change things."
Love was unavailable for comment on the new protests. But in an e-mail message to parents after the initial cancellation, he said the forum with two Palestinians "was not appropriate given the sensitivity and complexity of the issue."
Rabbi Weiss added, "I warned Love that he was creating a circus-like atmosphere. Judt is a lightning rod at this point and so is Khalidi. They're just so extreme. I told him that as an educator he has to be careful about not using a student event to push a one-sided political agenda. That is unconscionable."
The four rabbis said in a letter to Fieldston that they were "terribly disappointed by the failure of our efforts to reach out" to the school's administration. They wrote that they would not object to Judt and Khalidi if a pro-Israel voice could be heard, as well.