We recently spoke to some 500 high school students, teachers and administrators at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx. As the senior rabbis of two major Reform synagogues with which dozens of Fieldston families are affiliated, we presented the Jewish community's perspectives on the surge in anti-Semitic incidents in our area and throughout the country. We clarified that while we do not claim to represent all Jews, our views do fall within mainstream Jewish opinion.
We shared statistics from the New York City police and the F.B.I. about the pervasiveness of attacks against Jews. We also addressed the controversy that had erupted in the aftermath of Fieldston's November assembly, in which a guest speaker equated Israelis with Nazis and asserted that Israelis are an example of "victims becoming the perpetrators." Several hours after we spoke last week, Fieldston fired a teacher who had posted tweets demonizing Zionism. Students reported that while we were speaking, the teacher flipped a middle finger at one of us.
We are deeply worried about the effect that hatred of Israel has on students. We emphasized in our remarks that for centuries, anti-Semitism emerged from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. We described what far-right anti-Semitism looks like, but, since we are liberal rabbis, we spent most of our time discussing anti-Semitism among the left. It's especially important for us to speak against hate in our own camp. We stated emphatically that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic. To the contrary: it is often helpful and motivated by sound principles.
But to accuse Holocaust survivors of inflicting Nazi-like violence on others, as the guest speaker at Fieldston had, is morally grotesque. It whitewashes the Nazis' crimes and who they really were to accuse Jews of the very things that were done to them in an effort to defame the Jewish state.
To describe Zionism as racism, to deny Israel's most basic right to exist, is anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent. Why is Israel the only country in the world whose right to exist is not just questioned but actively campaigned against? Israel's enemies protest that they are simply anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, yet their view of justice requires eliminating the one and only Jewish state.
And they attack it with such venom. Their hatred of Israel is a primal loathing.
The events at Fieldston have broad importance, and are reflective of a much bigger problem. Anti-Israel activism has spread beyond the college campus and into the elementary and high school classroom. In Newton, Mass., a high school taught that Israel was "murdering and torturing Palestinian women." In 2016, a Palestinian activist visiting an elementary school classroom in Ithaca, N.Y., inveighed against Israel and called on students to "be the freedom fighter" for the Palestinians.
A hateful obsession with Israel too often descends into hatred of Jews, even if it doesn't start there. Hateful words lead to hateful deeds. This environment produces, teaches, accelerates and normalizes anti-Semitism. Anti-Israel activity on some college campuses has led to verbal and even physical assaults on Jewish students. And we must be honest with ourselves. It is happening in our space — in the heart of intellectual liberalism.
Jewish parents should be especially worried. When teachers and professors turn the classroom into an arena for anti-Israel animosity, students become unwitting pawns instead of safeguarded learners. They should feel they can ask questions without fear of scorn, explore their own ideas and draw their own conclusions. Academic malpractice is unfolding with too little pushback from parents and community leaders.
Schools need to respond — and so do the communities they serve — so that our children are not taught hateful views, but are instead imbued with the values of balanced inquiry, tolerance and the ability to take pride in who they are and where they came from. It is our diversity that strengthens society.
Joshua Davidson is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El. Ammiel Hirsch is senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.