Teaching American kids about Arab culture and Israel

Words have consequences. History teaches that lesson to us time and again, most recently in Toulouse.

Shiloh settlement in West Bank 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Shiloh settlement in West Bank 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 Law School Prof. 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 invited.
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 Vashem.
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 abound.
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 other teachers.
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 US national director of the Anti-Defamation League.