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When Bigotry Pretends to Be Social Justice

Bigotry by any other name should smell as bad. What's the sniff test?

Sun Logo from Wikimedia commons. Artwork by Pamela Paresky
Source: Sun Logo from Wikimedia commons. Artwork by Pamela Paresky

The Valley School is an elite, expensive, and politically progressive private school. Its mission is to mold students into “ethical individuals” who “aim to make the world more humane and just.” Its anti-racism program has been hailed as “among the most aggressive attempts by an independent school to confront racial issues.”

The school recently made the news when it invited an adjunct faculty member from a university law school to speak to 500 high school students about apartheid. During the question-and-answer period, the speaker divulged his theory about “those who are victims becoming perpetrators,” and asserted that as a result of trauma from a history of slavery and racism, African Americans oppress and “perpetuate violence against others.”

No one challenged the assertion. Upon learning of the episode, parents were shocked. Several complained. In response, the school composed a letter to parents acknowledging that “many” in the school community found a “comment” that the speaker made “particularly painful, disturbing, and upsetting.” With no condemnation, the school’s communication included the following:

“Our school has a history of inviting a wide variety of speakers with diverse perspectives. Respecting differences and engaging in the necessary dialogue and discussion to move ourselves and our larger community forward is foundational to our school’s values.”

If it seems impossible that a progressive school would ever engage in dialogue and discussion about the perspective that the historical trauma of slavery would lead African Americans to victimize others, that’s because it is. The Valley School is, fortunately, a fictional place. But what I described above is not fictional. It all took place at New York City’s elite Fieldston School. Except the targeted minority group wasn’t African American. It was Jewish.

Photo Wikimedia Commons
Source: Photo Wikimedia Commons

Here’s what really happened: On November 21, Kayum Ahmed, a South African and an adjunct member of the Columbia University Law School faculty, spoke at Fieldston about apartheid. In the Q & A, which was recorded on video, in response to a student's question, he said that “xenophobic attacks are a shameful part of South African history, but in some ways it reflects the fluidity between those who are victims becoming perpetrators,” and that he uses the same example in talking about the Holocaust. “Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel,” he told them, “today perpetuate violences against Palestinians that are unthinkable.”*

If a speaker had made comments such as these about any historically marginalized group in the U.S. other than Jewish people, it is hard to believe that an official from the school wouldn't have condemned it long before the students left the room. Apologies would have flooded parents' in-boxes. Counselors would have been on hand.**

In this case, however, the response was as quoted above.

To be clear, I do not have a problem with schools allowing speakers to say things like this in front of students. I think it’s important for students to see that words do not equal violence, to learn about antisemitic conspiracy theories, and to see firsthand that antisemites don't all announce their bigotry by looking like Nazis or a skinheads.

If a school would allow similar ideas about any other group to be shared without condemnation, then allowing it to be said about Jews would not be a marker of antisemitic undercurrents at the school. But of course, they wouldn’t. And that’s the insidious nature of antisemitism. It’s the form of bigotry often embraced by those who claim to be enemies of bigotry and advocates of social justice.

It is essential that schools disavow and condemn antisemitism in the strongest terms. And if swastikas appear in school hallways and classrooms, it is appropriate to communicate with students and parents about the Nazi use of swastikas rather than the “ancient history of the symbol” (as one parent put it). But that is apparently part of the problem at the Fieldston School, which reportedly once included Holocaust Remembrance Day in its calendar of events, but at some point made a decision to remove it. On the day of Ahmed's talk, when a Jewish student later expressed distress in a classroom, the teacher, according to “someone with direct knowledge of the situation” reacted by asserting that “there might be less concern about the Holocaust if more people were familiar with the genocides in other nations.”

Long before this incident, some Jewish parents expressed concern about the school’s mandatory “conversations about race” program for all third, fourth, and fifth graders. Despite research indicating that friendships between children from different backgrounds reliably diminish bias and discrimination, and that emphasizing differences is counterproductive to those ends, the curriculum requires each child to self-identify as part of a segregated, racial “affinity group.”

The mutually exclusive options are African American/Black; Asian or Pacific Islander; Latino; Multiracial; White; and Not Sure. Each child must pick one. “Jewish” is not among the identities from which children can choose. Parents asked that it be added.

In a 2015 meeting about the fledgling program, one parent shared what it was like growing up in the South, where Jews were not considered “white” and where the Ku Klux Klan tried to burn down his synagogue. According to one source, an African American parent told that Jewish parent, “When you walk in the room, I see you as white. Your child needs to go in the white group.” Another parent remembered the exchange as, “You have the privilege of hiding behind your whiteness. And my child doesn’t.”

The school refused to allow the Jewish affinity group.

Regardless of whether their ethnic backgrounds happen to include one of the non-white available categories, Jewish children (age 8 to 11) are forced to “self-identify” (a misnomer) as one of the available “affinity groups” even if their Jewishness is the more salient aspect of their identity. Jewish children who do not fit any of the non-white racial categories are required to choose “white” or “not sure” (which was renamed the “general discussion” group).

In 2017, the principal of the Lower School, whose wife and children are Jewish, abruptly retired after filing a report regarding comments made by Jessica Bagby, the head of the school. According to his report, Bagby said the problem was “the Zionists—the Jews.” (Bagby claims that her comments were “willfully misrepresented.”)

Earlier in November, before the most recent examples of antisemitism made the news, Bagby canceled a scheduled talk by NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (who is Jewish, incidentally) after a small group of faculty threatened a boycott. According to Sean Cooper, who published the definitive account of the Fieldston problem in Tablet Magazine, one parent opined, “Haidt is advocating for a kind of open dialogue and questioning of politically correct policing that offends the faculty.” Haidt’s talk was postponed until the Spring in order to “prepare the school,” according to multiple sources.

Nothing could have prepared students and their parents for Ahmed's talk — or the school's response. ♦

Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky


* Due to an editing error, the original version of the Tablet article, which omitted Ahmed’s reference to South Africa, has been edited to reflect the full quote. This article has been similarly amended. (Kudos to reader J.S. Gyorky for pointing out the correction in Tablet Magazine.)

Ahmed made waves at Columbia University when he attempted to preemptively prevent an event at which the British far-right activist who goes by the name Tommy Robinson was to appear by Skype, claiming that “hate speech” is (literally) “an act of violence.” Ahmed filed a formal complaint of discrimination and harassment with Columbia University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action in advance of the event. Robinson’s invitation to speak on campus, he argued, would be “a form of harassment and discrimination” that “violates [his] dignity” and “constitutes an act of violence.” He further complained that “Columbia’s inability and unwillingness to engage with the violence of hate speech under the guise of academic freedom is a shameful and disgraceful.”

You can read more in Ahmed's 2017 op-ed in the Columbia Spectator.

** One parent told Sean Cooper of Tablet Magazine, “If someone was coming to Fieldston to talk about apartheid and went off on a rant about the pea-sized brains of women who belong in a kitchen, or repeated racist tropes, or ranted about any form of homophobia or racism or sexism, immediately—immediately—teachers would have stood up and said, ‘that’s not how we feel, that’s not an idea we share,’” and added, “immediately after that a note would have gone out to every parent, condemning the remarks, offering counseling for those harmed and detailing education to prevent similar incidents in the future. And yet the students in that assembly saw none of that, because it’s part of the assumption at Fieldston that Jewish students are rich and white and thus privileged, so it doesn’t matter.”