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Riverdale alumni express outrage after elite NYC school cancels Israeli-Palestinian conflict class following parent pressure

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To the Riverdale Community:

As alumni of Riverdale Country School, we write to express our outrage and profound disappointment regarding the recent cancellation of Joel Doerfler’s Israel/Palestine seminar, and to affirm our absolute support of Mr. Doerfler, a deeply committed, talented and beloved teacher who served as head of the history department for most of his 26 years at Riverdale.

A few weeks ago, Shawn Redden, a Riverdale history teacher, was suspended over an alleged dispute with students that took place in his classroom on the subject of recent events in Gaza. While the precise details of that incident remain unclear, we question whether Mr. Redden would have been suspended had the dispute centered on an issue other than Israel/Palestine.

However, one thing is certain: Joel Doerfler had no involvement whatsoever. He was neither in the classroom, nor in any way implicated in how another teacher responded to a discussion with his students. There is no reason why an incident involving Mr. Redden should have had any bearing on Mr. Doerfler.

Nonetheless, a group of Riverdale parents, some of whom no longer have children at the school, used the incident as an opportunity to attack Joel Doerfler. Following Mr. Redden’s suspension, this group of parents launched what appears to be a smear campaign against Mr. Doerfler and his course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their efforts culminated in a forum of parents and administrators in the school auditorium, where Mr. Doerfler was attacked on political grounds.

Two days later, the Riverdale administration acquiesced to the parents’ demands and cancelled Mr. Doerfler’s Israel/Palestine course. Faced with a stunning assault on academic freedom and the integrity of the school, Mr. Doerfler resigned, ending his storied teaching career at Riverdale.

Mr. Doerfler’s Israel/Palestine course was not a mandatory part of the Riverdale curriculum. Rather, it was an elective offered every few years to a group of 8–16 students who voluntarily signed up for the class. Nonetheless, though less than five percent of Riverdale students actually took Mr. Doerfler’s class, dozens of parents, most if not all of whose children had never taken the class, mobilized to ensure its cancellation.

It is worth noting that the seminar was the only class at Riverdale to engage specifically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — absent his course, students will have no opportunity to study the subject. We find it disturbing that, for certain parents, the mere existence of such a class was apparently intolerable, and that the Riverdale administration folded under the pressure of their unjustified outrage.

Though we are particularly appalled by what has happened to a beloved former teacher, we recognize that what has happened at Riverdale is not unique. The pressure campaign against Mr. Doerfler fits into an ongoing pattern of intimidation directed at any individual, organization or course that is perceived to question the actions of the Israeli government, meaningfully delve into the intricacies of Palestinian and Israeli history or depart from an unequivocally pro-Israel reading of current events.

As alumni, we are grateful for the many wonderful teachers we had at Riverdale, and the privilege of such an extraordinary education. Our teachers’ commitment to the values of inquiry, openness, and academic rigor provides the foundation of our current academic and professional pursuits. And while we are deeply angered by what has transpired and call on Riverdale to ensure that such basic assaults on academic freedom never happen again, our letter is written primarily out of love and support for Mr. Doerfler, an extraordinary teacher whose dedication to his students is unrivaled. We refuse to be silent as members of the parent body seek to cleanse our alma mater of ideas that they may find disagreeable and call on the Riverdale administration to ensure that such basic assaults on academic freedom never happen again.

Riverdale considers itself a leader in “building character” through education. According to its official website, the school seeks to “give students the confidence to develop independence,” and is committed to the values of “open-mindedness,” “curiosity,” and “integrity.” Recent events constitute nothing less than a flagrant failure to live up to those ideals.

Riverdale can — and must — do better.

Sincerely,

Daniel Levine-Spound (Class of 2008)

Joseph de Jonge (Class of 2009)

Sophia Yapalater (Class of 2009)

Lee Eames (Class of 2010)

Lauren Levine (Class of 1978)

Clara Fischman (Class of 2009)

Julia Attie (Class of 2016)

Anna Attie (Class of 2016)

Annie Rasiel (Class of 2011)

Tovah Liebowitz (Class of 2007)

Katie Schaffer (Class of 2007)

Audrey E. Levine (Class of 1978)

Sophia Posnock (Class of 2008)

Ben Orbison (Class of 2008)

Ben Charles (Class of 2008)

Anna-Elisabeth Scheidt (Class of 2008)

Hilary Levine (Class of 1986)

Rachel Schragis (Class of 2004)

Sid Gurung (Class of 2007)

Laura Berman (Class of 2011)

Erik Goyenechea (Class of 2009)

Jack Masterson (Class of 2009)

Bronwen Schumacher (Class of 2011)

Griffin Schumacher (Class of 2011)

Jason Brandner (Class of 2012)

Jack Rasiel (Class of 2012)

Emma Weiss (Class of 2009)

Daniel Weiss (Class of 2009)

Carla Diaz (Class of 2009)

Nina Tager (Class of 1978)

Johnathan Appel (Class of 2012)

Michelle Goodman (Class of 2009)

Andrew Wynne (Class of 2009)

Georges Clement (Class of 2008)

Ben Nortey (Class of 2009)

Peter Eames (Class of 2008)

Nadia Ahmed (Class of 2010)

Samantha Shalowitz (Class of 2010)

Caroline Grueskin (Class of 2010)

Catherine Rolfe (Class of 2010)

Ben Wexler-Waite (Class of 2010)

Karen Wexler (Class of 1978)

Lisa Franklin (Class of 2010)

Ariel Lesnick (Class of 2010)

Julia Grueskin (Class of 2007)

Adam Sands (Class of 2010)

Lily Adler (Class of 2010)

Ethan Gracer (Class of 2010)

Emma Horwitz (Class of 2010)

Jess Coles (Class of 2010)

Will Morrison (Class of 2010)

Aaron Horwitz (Class of 2010)

Noah Kernis (Class of 2010)

Carolyn Levine (Class of 2010)

Josh Wexler-Waite (Class of 2013)

Melvin Rodriguez (Class of 2010)

Allison Gross (Class of 2014)

Keifer Ludwig (Class of 2015)

Aaron Horwitz (Class of 2013)

Ben Kesslen (Class of 2014)

Alexander Spatt (Class of 2008)

Jeff Hechler (Class of 2008)

Ariel Stein (Class of 2008)

Oleander S. Furman (Class of 2011)

Noah Brick (Class of 1999)

Maggie Cicco (Class of 2013)

John Cicco (Class of 2016)

Michael Shelton (Class of 2010)

Ethan Rodriguez (Class of 2017)

Giordano Salvador (Class of 2010)

Soo Ji Lee (Class of 2012)

Rebecca Selch (Class of 2013)

Cathy Skulnik (Class of 2007)

Katherine Corwin (Class of 2008)

Anna Radinova (Class of 2008)

Damone Johnson (Class of 2008)

Emma Michelson (Class of 2008)

Suhaydee Tejada (Class of 2008)

William Dana (Class of 2008)

Jonathan Rolfe (Class of 2014)

Julia Millison (Class of 2008)

Joanna Petrone (Class of 2001)

Oliver Chemtob (Class of 2016)

Will Kahn (Class of 2008)

Zach Schwinder (Class of 2010)

David Fischoff (Class of 2009)

Anna Radinova (Class of 2008)

Jared Newmark (Class of 2010)

Gabriel Murray (Class of 2014)

Kay Cohen (Class of 2006)

Ryan Picard (Class of 2013)

James Klingensmith (Class of 2008)

Margaret Stone (Class of 2014)

Becca Schwartz (Class of 2007)

Daniel C Eghdami (Class of 2013)

EJ Dickson (Class of 2007)

Monique Reichenstein (Class of 2014)

Dustin Taylor (Class of 2013)

Gabriela Gamez (Class of 2018)

Elena Golub (Class of 2016)

Kathy Franklin (Parent — Class of 2010)

Rachel Grimmelman (Class of 2007)

Sugeidy Ferreira (Class of 2018)

Luke Landis (Class of 2017)

Don Fischman (Parent—Class of 2009)

Andrew Lemchen (Class of 2008)

Alex Korman (Class of 2018)

Judith Bram Murphy (Class of 1977)

Leila Murphy (Class of 2015)

Theodore Casparian (Class of 1978)

Jake Nusbaum (Class of 2013)

Li Goldstein (Class of 2018)

Olivia Irby (Class of 2014)

Matthew Weinberger (Class of 2017)

Philip Joseph (Class of 1985)

Paul Ryan (Class of 1985)

Erica Moroz (Class of 2006)

Peter Feld (Class of 1976)

If you are a member of the Riverdale community and would like to sign this letter, please email [email protected] or comment accordingly.

 This post was originally published on July 12, 2018 on Medium. 

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24 Responses

  1. Citizen
    Citizen
    July 17, 2018, 12:46 pm

    Interesting what hard core Zionist parents can do to ruin a good person’s career and the ideals of the institution that person works for…

    • Marnie
      Marnie
      July 18, 2018, 1:23 am

      It’s astounding the power they’ve been given to wield. Depressing.

      • Misterioso
        Misterioso
        July 18, 2018, 10:05 am

        @Marnie, et al

        Meanwhile:

        https://iak.salsalabs.org/tell-congress-vote-no-38-billion/index.html?wvpId=d3bd1991-f95c-4310-8db0-6b5ca0b89c72

        If Americans Knew, July 18/18

        “Congress will soon vote on a $38 billion military aid package for Israel. It is extremely important that you contact them at once and demand they vote NO.”

        “This would be the largest military aid package in history. And as usual, the Israeli government will spend the money on weapons to massacre its neighbors. Can you think of a better use for $38 billion?”

        “Contact Congress now and demand they vote NO!”

  2. Boomer
    Boomer
    July 18, 2018, 7:45 am

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s a sad story, and disturbing, but at first I wasn’t moved to comment. After all, it’s about some rich folks far from me. Far geographically and in terms of socio-economic status. But on reflection I realized it is about the elites and narratives that guide our national culture.

  3. edding
    edding
    July 18, 2018, 9:24 am

    The same or similar happened at the Fieldston School in 2006. See, for example,
    https://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/17/nyregion/shelving-of-panel-on-mideast-roils-school.html
    and:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/10/nyregion/metro-briefing-new-york-bronx-criticism-of-middle-east-discussion.html

    The incident involved the scheduling of a lecture initiated by a student to invite a Palestinian academic at Columbia University to speak to a history class at the school.
    The scheduling was then picked up by a parent who was part of the group Campus Watch, who then complained to the administration. Students, parents and teachers then entered into what escalated into a donnybrook. Eventually, a compromise was found to hold instead a school-wide forum involving multiple speakers with differing positions. The upshot of it was that for a period of time the principal’s authority was reduced.

    The issue of that type of power and influence at Fieldston appeared again in 2017, this time in the context of the school’s diversity program. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/nyregion/ethical-culture-fieldston-school-principal.html

  4. James Canning
    James Canning
    July 18, 2018, 1:57 pm

    The effort to suppress any discussion of Palestine in the US, by fanatical supporters of Israel, likely is damaging the true best interests of Israel.

    • JulianaFarha
      JulianaFarha
      July 19, 2018, 5:46 am

      With respect, so what? I appreciate that you are pointing out how counter productive this behaviour is, but I’m tired of that argument. Why are we obligated constantly to view this issue through the lens of its impact on Israel, Jewish Americans, so-called ‘liberal Zionists’ etc. The ‘sensitivities’ of Jewish students are invariably privileged over the principle of free speech, but also over the sensitivities of Arab and Palestinian students, and pretty much everyone else who actually believes in the universality of human rights and international law.

      This morning I’ve been reading about the passage of Israel’s nation state bill in which Jewish Israelis’ ethno-supremacy is finally formalised. The theme of every article is whether Israel has lost its claim to be a democracy, as if that’s the most pressing issue thrown up by this revolting legislation. How about the fact that a significant proportion of the population of Israel has been officially informed that it has no right to self determination, and its representatives were literally thrown out of the legislature to which they were elected? Any outrage about that?

  5. eljay
    eljay
    July 19, 2018, 8:12 am

    || JulianaFarha: … This morning I’ve been reading about the passage of Israel’s nation state bill in which Jewish Israelis’ ethno-supremacy is finally formalised. The theme of every article is whether Israel has lost its claim to be a democracy, as if that’s the most pressing issue thrown up by this revolting legislation. … ||

    It’s the most-pressing issue for shoot-and-cry Zionists because, well, aggressor-victimhood is a very tough gig…  :-(

  6. Tom Suarez
    Tom Suarez
    July 20, 2018, 2:25 am

    Meanwhile, not far from Riverdale …
    I was invited to speak to a discussion group in Bronxville last November. I was told that while some might consider my topic — Zionist terrorism during the British Mandate and its relevance to present day Israel-Palestine — to be controversial, it would be in the spirit of the organization’s long and proud history of open debate. Plans were set; months passed. Then a week before the event, I was informed suddenly that the event was cancelled, and that a principal cause of the cancellation was a prominent Bronxville political figure, who invoked Bronxville’s history of anti-Semitism as the reason. I contacted that official directly and asked to meet with her to discuss her concerns (specifically, what on earth Bronxville’s history of anti-Semitism had to do with me).
    She refused … an elected US official blocking debate on an issue of profound significance to the US, and censoring archival records, on behalf of a foreign pariah state.

  7. ehsth
    ehsth
    July 20, 2018, 7:23 am

    As a Riverdale parent of three students who graduated more than a decade ago, I am delighted that FINALLY, Joel Doerfler is gone. He should have been fired years ago for his relentless, childish, inappropriate bullying of students on scores of subjects: cheating on tests, taxes, wealth among the student body, politics – you name it. His style was never one of encouraging open, critical dialogue – rather, his chosen method of “teaching” consisted of sarcastic criticism, public humiliation, ridicule, personal attacks, and tearing apart any student who dared to disagree with Doerfler’s own beliefs. He did a great deal of damage to many young (and sometimes, intimidated) students over the years, and should never have been a “teacher”. Good riddance – I only wish this had happened 20 years ago.

  8. ehsth
    ehsth
    July 21, 2018, 9:28 am

    You are so right. It should have entitled our students to, among many other things, fairness, respect, kindness, objectivity, and open discussion. Not too much to ask – right ? Unfortunately, they did not get that from Doerfler.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      July 21, 2018, 12:58 pm

      ” Unfortunately, they did not get that from Doerfler.”

      And yet he managed to last a couple of decades, and resign when he felt like it. Amazing what those expensive “independent schools” put up with. Those $52,000/year schools must be a regular Dothekids Hall (I assume they are coed).

    • echinococcus
      echinococcus
      July 21, 2018, 1:59 pm

      52,000 a year seems to be needed for a high school kid to be entitled to ” fairness, respect, kindness, objectivity, and open discussion”. All others can swallow government-issue propaganda crap which is the opposite of all things you invoked.

      And yet, as a parent who forked over 3 times $52,000 tuitions, you are cheering for government-issue propaganda crap to be imposed to all and to get rid of an open discussion oasis that was optional. You couldn’t just tell your 3 scions Thou shalt not take Mr Doerfler’s course nor walk anywhere closer than 300 feet from his classroom.

      You’re so believable.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        July 21, 2018, 7:16 pm

        “And yet, as a parent who forked over 3 times $52,000 “

        According to the website, it’s $52,050. To have your kids asked “Did you go to school with Betty, Veronica and Archie” for the rest of their lives!

  9. ehsth
    ehsth
    July 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

    My remarks were aimed at the style of Doerfler’s teaching generally, and not tied to this particular elective course. My children were all students of Doerfler’s in required history courses they had to take and which he taught and to which they were assigned, not in an elective course with him, for which they would not have signed up. Have no clue as to what echinoccocus is referring about wanting govt-issued propaganda crap – what ??? No idea where that comes from. Expecting a required history course to be taught with encouragement of open discussion and a variety of political and other opinions, but with respect for all and without bullying and ridicule, seems perfectly reasonable to me. Whether that course is given in a public or private school. I see no distinction between the venues in demanding those standards be adhered to. And when my kids attended, tuition was in the $40’s, for what that’s worth.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      July 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

      ” And when my kids attended, tuition was in the $40’s, for what that’s worth.”

      And even for a mere $40,000 per year you are entitled to the kind of teachers who know when an obnoxious kid needs a little talking-to.

      You won’t get that kind of character-building effort at the cheap schools.

    • echinococcus
      echinococcus
      July 22, 2018, 11:25 pm

      I see the goalposts have suddenly moved, or did you perhaps forget to mention you were talking about something completely different altogether?

      Be that as it may, the burden of proof is entirely on you for that assertion of lack of fairness

  10. ehsth
    ehsth
    July 23, 2018, 10:22 pm

    To both echinococcus and Mooser – wish we could continue this dialogue but I honestly have no idea what you are each talking about: burden of proof, goalposts moving, character building of obnoxious kids – what in the world are you talking about. Your patter bears no relation to anything I said and further makes no sense. You’re not interested in a substantive conversation. So signing out for good now. Best to both of you.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      July 24, 2018, 11:14 am

      “Shorter “ehsth”: ‘I cannot substantiate a single accusation’

      Oh, BTW, if you don’t know what “burden of proof” is, ask a lawyer.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        July 24, 2018, 11:47 am

        “So signing out for good now”

        Leaving only an archive behind.

      • oldgeezer
        oldgeezer
        July 24, 2018, 12:30 pm

        @Mooser

        Nice catch and oh so funny. A self proclaimed laywer claiming to not know the concept of burden of proof.

        Tarnishes every single thing they said.

        Leaves me with unresolved issues. Is it a lying lawyer or a lying about being a lawyer.

        ps….. I feel like my data is being handled.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        July 24, 2018, 1:52 pm

        “Nice catch and oh so funny.”

        It’s the result of a cheap public education.

      • oldgeezer
        oldgeezer
        July 24, 2018, 8:15 pm

        @Mooser

        Public! Exposure to other ideas, beliefs, cultures?!

        Only way to go imo.

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