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The homogeneity and ‘intense political programming’ of Jewish day schools

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Students from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School participating in an Israeli army training in the Negev as part of the school’s “senior experience” trip to Eastern Europe and Israel.
(Photo: Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School)

Students of biological evolution know that diversity is key to the survival of species, enabling organisms to withstand the harsh and changing conditions of the environment in the long run. Like species in the wild, students require a diversity of thought in order to develop as independent critical thinkers. When I was a student at a Jewish Day School (JDS) in an affluent suburb of Washington DC, I encountered the opposite of diversity – total homogeneity – in both the composition of the community and in the range of viewpoints deemed legitimate. The school’s monomaniacal focus on the advancement of a political agenda was enabled by a highly homogeneous environment, where dissenting views are absent, and by importation of lobbying techniques from the conservative Pro-Israel lobby. Massive efforts by the school to indoctrinate students to a narrow set of views damaged the breadth and quality of its curriculum, and marginalized in particular the arts and sciences. The alliance of private schools with political lobbies and the consequences of homogeneity in the classroom must prompt a re-examination of the limits and transgressions of private education.

While I was a high school student, one of the largest pro-Israel rallies in history took place in Washington DC. The rally was a statement of solidarity with the State of Israel following a heated period in the West Bank, when there was fear that Israel’s image might be tainted in the international community. The school united to support the cause: classes were called off for the demonstration and students were bused to the rally, with the usual demonstration materials, Israeli flags and signs plastered with meaningless slogans. An administrator told us that those who do not want to attend the rally have the option of staying in school to participate in unspecified cleaning chores. A rally’s strength comes from the number of its attendees, not from the logic of their arguments or their knowledge of the issues, and the school used its authority and resources to boost the numbers. In a later year, the school contributed funding to the Washington rally, re-affirming its commitment.

A major regret of my adult life is that I abstained in silence, staying home that day, rather than protesting against the school for making it nearly mandatory for students to so boldly take a political stance on a complex topic that most of them have not fully understood, or even thought about independently. No one else seemed to skip a beat, a recurring pattern in a homogeneous community where there is pressure to be like-minded.

The fact that a private Jewish school in a wealthy American suburb would be highly homogeneous isn’t surprising. The school offers an elite private education, with a tuition bill comparable to that of the best colleges, afforded predominantly by wealthy – incidentally, largely Ashkenazi – American Jews. Children of affluent parents from the political arena are sent there to get an education intertwined with a high dose of political spin, carefully crafted with the aid of the best minds from the Washington lobbying community. The culture of homogeneity enables this political agenda to go unchallenged and dictate the order of business.

Support for Israel

What is the origin of the school’s strong political support for the State of Israel? An answer can be found in the school’s mission statement, where its political agenda is stated in no uncertain terms. Its fourth principle, mislabeled as “A’havat Israel”, or “Love of Israel”, states that it is in the school’s mission “to foster a sense of commitment to the State of Israel.”  The phrase is particularly dangerous because it is timeless and unconditional. The State of Israel is a government in flux: leaders, policies and attitudes change, often for the worse, yet the commitment for support is declared to remain no matter what. Political commitment is also flatly inconsistent with the first principle of the mission statement, to instill an education that “places a priority on critical, independent and creative thought and expression.” If you’re committed to “the State” as a core value, you can be sure that critical and independent thinking will be missing.

The school makes direct use of straight-up political lobbying to execute its mission. Each year, the best students are sent to the AIPAC-Saban leadership seminar, where “top student activists” engage in “intense political programming.” They are provided “advocacy training” delivered by AIPAC leadership, and the school has gone further and hosted in-house advocacy training sessions, given in part by AIPAC leaders and the crème de la crème of Washington political lobbyists and consultants – including representatives of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. It’s hard to get more professional than this about instilling political doctrine.

To grasp the absurdity of a school subordinated to “political programming”, it’s instructive to consider the double standard. Imagine a private Catholic school whose mission included fostering commitment to the Republican Party, and where each year the top students are selected to attend an NRA-sponsored leadership event to be trained by leading lobbyists in advocacy techniques. Classes are occasionally called off and students are bused to ‘Right to Bear Arms’ rallies. I doubt such an absurdity exists, but I suspect that if it did, it’d come under intense scrutiny once exposed.

It’s important to clarify that “A’havat Israel”, or love for Israel/Palestine, does not imply support for any government. It is perfectly acceptable to have a love for the region and its inhabitants, non-Jews and Jews, and to even claim that this love is rooted in Jewish values or supported by a rich history of Jewish thought. But none of these concepts, however construed, translates into political support for a particular government.

In high school, a class was offered on the Arab-Israeli conflict, purporting to examine it through the lens of history. On the first day of class, the teacher, a graduate of the school, broke down in tears midway, apologizing that on that day in recent years, a friend of theirs was killed in a suicide bombing in Israel. The atrocious suicide bombing naturally gained the sympathy of the class, but the teacher’s emotional stance also set the tone for the content and discussion. The discussions were uniformly narrow, with no dissenting views whatsoever, since the teacher and the participants were compromised from the start.

When it was time to write a term paper for the class, I chose to write about Israel and international law. I argued that Israel was in violation of international law on several fronts, citing various U.N. documents and the Geneva accords. In retrospect, what I wrote was innocuous and straightforward, a commonly held view then and now. I received my paper back with a mark in the 40s (out of 100). I was never told that my paper was bad because I held dissenting, minority views that were critical of the State of Israel; it’s far more subtle. There wasn’t a strong reason given one way or another, and the remarks seemed more like technicalities. Giving a student who is thinking about college applications an obscenely low grade makes the message clear enough, and places the burden on the student to challenge the teacher. I didn’t; I took my failing grade in silence.

The consequences of homogeneity

A striking feature of the school was its overwhelming emphasis on particular branches of the humanities, compared with the arts and sciences. It was known for its English courses, and for strong history – in particular, Jewish history – classes. The English courses were indeed excellent for the most part, with many classes taught by PhDs who could have easily taught at the college-level. The competitiveness of the English courses was the school’s pride and joy, so much that we were told repeatedly that a ‘B+’ is the highest grade that can be obtained, while an ‘A’ is reserved for unattainable perfection. This ceiling was so frequently touted that many students panicked when gearing up for college applications, fearing that college admission committees are uncalibrated to the unusual grade scale. The arts and sciences, by contrast, suffered greatly from this unevenness and were not taught at the same level.

The consequences of homogeneity on education extend far beyond enabling an unchecked system of political indoctrination. In one of my Rabbinics classes, the Rabbi gave a presentation that to this day makes my jaw drop. He showed us a picture of an ordinary-looking beetle that turned out to be much more. We were told that the beetle’s back is made up of two compartments, each carrying a particular chemical mixture. When the beetle senses danger, it opens up the compartments, which in turn catalyzes a combustive reaction that shoots out explosive liquid at its predators. This ingenious mechanism is so elegant, the Rabbi argued, that a designer (God) must have created it. Evolution, a random process, is clearly unable to give rise to this incredible feat of engineering. Years later, I realized the Rabbi must have been referring to the Bombardier Beetle, a type of insect routinely used for its defense mechanism in crackpot arguments against evolution by proponents of intelligent design and creationism. This argument and others like it have been so endlessly debunked that they are hardly worth discussing with the intelligent reader.

I don’t think the school is filled with creationists, and I have no reason to believe that this would ever crossover from a Rabbinics to a science course. But it’s when you put the forces of homogeneity together that you see why this brand of crackpottery can go unnoticed. Although I intuitively knew that I was presented with junk, I didn’t have then the necessary background in biology to stand up to the Rabbi. I also lacked the mental strength and courage to make a fuss about something that my classmates didn’t appear to think twice about, the homogeneous crowd being sympathetic to a religious authority figure – and so the Rabbi went unchallenged. In a secular school, public or private, there are no Rabbis around to pontificate about science, and if say, history teachers did this, they’d be ousted. They would not survive the scrutiny of a diverse audience. Here, religious leaders have been inserted into education by design, predisposing the school to dangerous spillover between the compartments of religion and science.

More than just one school

My personal experience is merely a vignette, serving as a window to a systematic conflict that occurs when education is subordinated to a political agenda, within a community that is socially, politically and economically homogeneous. The conclusions I’ve drawn depend in no way on my own experience: the evidence has been in plain view all along. All one needs to do is consider the mission statement, the events that are supported and funded, and the structure and incentives of the educational institution to see this.

My school wasn’t anomalous in taking the mission to instill nationalism for the State of Israel as integral part of the curriculum. A Chicago JDS’s mission states that Israel as a focus “begins immediately as students enter the school” where they are expected to “build a sense of pride and connection to their Jewish homeland.” A JDS in Nassau County, NY has an extensive section on the State of Israel in a pamphlet describing second grade education, where “the children regularly engage in projects fostering their connection to the State of Israel and our responsibility to Israeli Jews.” Each day begins by singing Israel’s National Anthem to “express our love of Medinat Yisrael [the State of Israel]”. It is expected that “children learn about the flag [of Israel]” and aspects of modern-day Israel “from Jerusalem to the Army” to understand “the joy of Israel’s existence.” Sounds like a heavy load for a second grader. The choice of language is telling: it is the children that express “our” love for the state of Israel, since even a propagandist pamphleteer cannot reasonably attribute such nationalistic and politically charged views to second graders.

Use of political rallying and close collaboration with conservative Pro-Israel lobbies like AIPAC is widespread in schools as well. Eighth graders from a JDS in New Jersey traveled to New York City to attend a Israel solidarity rally across from the U.N. Students from a JDS in New York traveled to the Washington solidarity rally, where they heard political speeches by then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Rudy Giuliani, among others, the latter distinguishing the P.L.O. as an organization that “harbors terrorism” from Israel as “a nation based on law and democracy.” Students returned to the school to ceremonies commemorating fallen soldiers in the Israeli army, to be followed by celebration of Israeli Independence Day, making it obvious that the Israeli curriculum of remembrance (captured vividly in Eyal Sivan’s film ‘Izkor: Slaves of Memory’) was imported into the schools. Baltimore JDS students are sent to AIPAC conferences to learn lobbying strategies, and school educators are granted awards by AIPAC for their loyal alliance.

It’s not that there’s an elaborate conspiracy by conservative Jewish activists, who in secrecy decided to create factories, disguised as schools, of pro-Israel lobbyists who can be launched into affluent spheres of American life to advance a conservative political agenda. Quite the opposite: the political agenda is stated openly, and the priorities and focuses of the institution emerge to reflect it. No insider knowledge is required to see this and nothing is hidden.

It isn’t that science is intentionally marginalized in the curriculum, either. It’s just that this is what happens when political agenda guides education. Political programming is the business of the humanities; Chemistry and Biology courses aren’t as likely to make somebody a better rhetoretician or advocate as English and History courses. The school arranges for the best students to go to an AIPAC leadership conference to acquire an arsenal of lobbying techniques, and not, for example, to attend a scientific research conference at the NIH, or to take part in an art seminar at the National Gallery. Administrators and boards who make hiring decisions and allocate funding will mirror these priorities: certain teachers will inevitably get promoted over others, some departments and programs expanded while others not. These are natural influences that run through the fabric of an institution lacking in checks and balances.

‘Wildlife’ diversity versus stifling homogeneity

Apart from the damaging effects on education, political programming within private schools has practical consequences for public funding. In the summer of 2012, Governer Andrew Cuomo of NY struck down a bill that would have potentially opened up public funds for parents who seek to send their children to private religious schools, like schools in the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities. The bill, supported by Jewish Orthodox and Catholic groups, raises the natural question of whether an education catered to a community’s special interests is eligible for taxpayer’s dollars. When cultural and religious special interests come along with a hefty dose of political programming, as they do in these schools, it is another strong argument against the schools’ eligibility for public funding.

For education to take place, it needs ‘wildlife’ diversity. The philosopher of science Helen Longino argued that “when background assumptions are shared by all members of a community, they acquire an invisibility that renders them unavailable for criticism.” The quality of science produced by a community, she argued, will correlate with “the number of points of view included”, since high quality science requires criticism – and this is arguably truer for high quality education. The onus is on the Jewish community to think outside its own homogeneity and seek multiple viewpoints and dissenting opinion, rather than replenish the established political lobbies with rhetoreticians and advocates. Political programming in a school is not just a problem on its own, but comes at the expense of the arts and sciences, which get de-prioritized.

When Gilad Sharon, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s son, enthusiastically calls for Israel to “Flatten all of Gaza” – a point of view shared by some in the Israeli government – it is imperative to offer an alternative. In times of turmoil and devastation in the Middle East, the Jewish-American community must educate open-minded and curious individuals who can imagine a different future, one that takes into account the well being of the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine, rather than reproduce a political system devoted to special interests.

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Perhaps it is not unexpected. Hasn’t Judaism long been focused on nationalism, ie the people? I know that it also teaches the importance of dissident prophets, and that there have been eras when it made a point of evangelizing other peoples, like across the Roman world. Plus, I think one… Read more »

For what it’s worth, you can probably find alot of fundamentalist protestant schools in the US that have a kind of mind programming when it comes to the categories of ideas you described, like creationism, and some political positions. Admittedly the mission statement you mentioned sounds pretty strong politically even… Read more »

Yarden Katz wrote: “To grasp the absurdity of a school subordinated to “political programming”, it’s instructive to consider the double standard. Imagine a private Catholic school whose mission included fostering commitment to the Republican Party, and where each year the top students are selected to attend an NRA-sponsored leadership event…… Read more »

RE: “In the summer of 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo of NY struck down a bill that would have potentially opened up public funds for parents who seek to send their children to private religious schools, like schools in the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities.” ~ Yarden Katz ALSO NOTE: FOR… Read more »

”The bill, supported by Jewish Orthodox and Catholic groups, raises the natural question of whether an education catered to a community’s special interests is eligible for taxpayer’s dollars.” The obvious answer is no. The public’s tax money should go to the country’s public school system. If individuals chose not to… Read more »