The Israeli-Arab conflict came to Riverdale's Fieldston School yesterday. On one side were two critics of Israel, New York University history professor Tony Judt and Rashid Khalidi.
On the other side were about 70 protesters - including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis - who waved signs proclaiming "This is not a debate. It is Israel bashing."
Caught in the middle were some 300 students at the Fieldston School, who were attending a day-long series about the Middle East. The panels come in the wake of a previously scheduled event in February, which was canceled after protests that a reputed "balanced" event in fact represented only the anti-Israel side of the argument.
Yesterday's program was divided into four breakout sessions, each one offering students a choice of three or more panel discussions to attend. The final assembly included all the students and featured Mr. Judt and Mr. Khalidi.
Yesterday's protest was organized by Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rabbi Weiss was invited to participate in a panel entitled "the Role of Religion in the Region" but withdrew after learning that only Mr. Judt and Mr. Khalidi were scheduled to speak at the final assembly.
In a letter addressed to Fieldston's principal, John Love, Rabbi Weiss called the final panel "so profoundly tilted against Israel that it renders your entire program a deep disservice to your students in intellectual, educational and moral terms." He later told The New York Sun: "This is not an open school. It's very closed."
Rabbi Weiss wrote a letter, which was signed by five other rabbis in Riverdale, that stated their opposition, as well as pointing out that in a meeting with Mr. Love on Friday they had offered to find a third speaker, such as Dennis Ross or David Makovsky, to balance the final panel.
The panel was also criticized as onesided by the Zionist Organization of America, the Anti-Defamation League, Rep. Eliot Engel, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and Councilman G. Oliver Koppell.
One of the protesters, Ron Rubin, called the session "liberal anti-Semitism - that's what it comes down to."
Another protester, Arnold Stark, whose two children graduated from the school, said, "In this supposed center for academic freedom, we're not getting a balanced point of view. It's totally one-sided."
The Fieldston School did not reply to a request for comment, and Mr. Love, sitting in an administrative office with Mr. Khalidi, was adamant that the event was "a private event, not open to reporters." Additionally, faculty members told students not to speak to any of the protesters or reporters. Mr. Love also declined an invitation to speak to the Sun later in the afternoon.
According to Phyllis Leventhal, who attended the final assembly, Mr. Love concluded the day's events by telling the audience, "Today we have gotten distinguished speakers who have given us a comprehensive analysis." About the protesters he said, "Just remember: you have them outnumbered. Do not engage with them." Ms. Leventhal, who graduated from Fieldston 50 years ago, had written a letter to Mr. Love expressing her disapproval of the final panel.
Ms. Leventhal and some others who heard the speakers said that while they stayed clear of topics like suicide bombings and Israel's right to exist, it was definitely tilted against Israel with repeated references to Israel as an occupying force and an apartheid state.
Others however defended the panel. Jerry Kupfer, who came to pick up his daughter Michaela, a high school student, quarreled with a couple of the protesters. He said that he's against "a dogmatic viewpoint which says that it's our way or the highway." He also said that Jewish groups who cry anti-Semitism anytime someone makes a counter argument about the Israel-Palestinian conflict are "the reason why Hamas is in power." His daughter added, "It wasn't anti-Israel at all."
Kate Harris, a senior, said that she was "quite impressed" with all the panels. "The school took into account the complexities of the issue," she said. She also said that both Messrs. Khalidi and Judt "approached the topic from a historical and scholarly perspective" without inserting their personal beliefs.