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NY private school canceled Joel Doerfler’s Palestine class after big donors held meeting with AJC

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In June, it was learned that Joel Doerfler, a longtime history teacher at an elite New York private school, had resigned because the school had canceled his Israel/Palestine class in the wake of controversy over the Gaza shootings. A second teacher at the school, Shawn Redden, was placed on paid leave at about the same time– not long after he had put up the names of Palestinian victims on his classroom door.

Since then, rumors have circulated about Zionist pressure on the school administration to get rid of Doerfler and Redden. Those rumors have now been confirmed in a smashing investigation by Robert Silverman in the Huffington Post.

The article, “How An Elite New York City Prep School Created A Safe Space For Angry Zionists,” documents that administrators of the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx deferred to donors, Jewish Zionist parents who were outraged by Doerfler and Redden’s criticisms of the Gaza slaughter. These parents coordinated their efforts with David Harris of the American Jewish Committee and sought to paint the teachers as anti-Semitic and akin to white supremacists (though Doerfler is Jewish and Redden married to a Jew).

Those influential parents, who collectively have donated vast sums to Riverdale in recent years, met in private to lobby highly receptive school officials — including the board’s chair, David Westin, the former president of ABC News — and worked to shape and then dominate the agenda of a more public parents’ meeting in June…

[T]hroughout, they treated any criticism of Israel or its current government as equivalent to anti-Semitism. It was the playbook of Israel’s staunchest defenders, adapted to a prep school setting.

The case is reminiscent of the firing of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois in 2014, when powerful donors met with the school’s chancellor to complain about Salaita’s angry tweets about the Gaza massacre of that summer.

Here is a skeletal narrative of Silverman’s investigation.

Tuition at Riverdale Country School is about $50,000 a year. The school boasts a 27-acre campus, a $63 million endowment, and enviable facilities, including a pool named after the family of Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary. The school’s culture is generally liberal and cosmopolitan.

On May 15, the day after the US Embassy opened in Jerusalem and Israel slaughtered more than 60 Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border, Doerfler, 74, who has contributed to our website, decorated his classroom door with a New York Times article on the killings and a sign saying, I support Palestinian human rights.

The postings led to a heated debate. Many pro-Israel students added commentary to the door, much of it “openly anti-Palestinian and… explicitly anti-Arab,” including the line ascribed to Golda Meir, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

Shawn Redden in turn posted on his own classroom door a list of names of those killed on the border and Amnesty International’s condemnation of Israeli war crimes.

Doerfler’s classroom door, featuring his original posting from the NYT, and commentary, chiefly from pro-Israel students. May 2018. From Huffington Post.

Some students complained about the anti-Arab comments, and the head of Riverdale’s upper school, Kelley Nicholson-Flynn sent out a general email condemning both anti-Arab and anti-Semitic language, though Silverman reports, “No anti-Semitic material had been posted on the wall, sources told me.”

Three days later in a “mock trial elective,” Redden led a discussion of the Nakba, and the expulsion of Palestinians from lands that became Israel.

A senior female student, who is Jewish, stood up and announced that she would not remain in class, according to three sources who were in the room, all of them sympathetic to Redden. The teacher told the student to remain seated. Should she choose to leave, Redden told her, it would impact her final grades. She bolted the classroom anyway, slamming the door behind her.

At this point a group of influential parent/donors who are pro-Israel took action with school officials.

“On May 21, Tal Keinan, the Israeli-born founder of Clarity Capital, emailed four other Riverdale parents with a draft of a letter that he planned to send to [head of school Dominic] Randolph,” Silverman reports. As more parents joined the list, criticisms mounted of the teachers, including allegations that students were “silenced” and experienced “unprovoked and angry rants about Israel.”

Keinan sent the letter to Randolph on May 22, and the next morning he and parent Sam Levine met with Randolph. “Later that same day, Randolph informed Redden that he would be placed on paid leave.”

That night, Keinan informed about 50 parents that the head of school “sees things as we do.”

“There is an atmosphere of tolerance for hate, which permeates only a narrow constituency at Riverdale, but that targets a specific community and enables the type of behavior that we experienced last week,” Keinan alleged. … Randolph “sees things as we do,” according to Keinan, and “is committed to addressing the issue at its source.”

Another meeting followed a week later. This time three parents met with three school officials, including a board member who is also on the board of the American Jewish Congress, and demanded concrete action to counter anti-Semitism. According to a subsequent email from Sam Levine, those demands included:

  • Addressing the climate of purported “indoctrination” by left-leaning members of the faculty and preventing “teachers from using their platform to promote personal ideology regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict…”
  • Following the example set by the pending “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” co-sponsored by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) — “one of my closest friends,” Levine wrote — and perhaps even inviting Deutch to speak at Riverdale…
  • Holding training seminars for faculty members comparable to Starbucks’ decision to close 8,000 stores that same day for racial bias seminars. ..

Levine said that the school’s chair was on board: “David [Westin] was very clear in his response, stating that there was no excuse for teachers to be using their platform of power to indoctrinate students with their point of view regarding Israel. David went on to say he wanted the school to have direct conversations with teachers to make clear that if they felt they could not stop themselves from this action, then they would not be allowed to teach at Riverdale.”

Levine announced another parents’ meeting on May 31 at the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Silverman writes:

According to the email, “more than 160 parents and students” were expected to attend the May 31 meeting at the AJC. There, they would be treated to “a very interesting learning opportunity” via “the always very impressive David Harris.”

Harris is the AJC ceo who pulls in more than half a million a year and who has lamented that young Jews are losing faith on Israel: “Where did we go wrong in our homes and our schools?”

He issued a statement to HuffPo saying the teachers had created a climate of intimidation.

Harris confirmed that the AJC was asked by “members” of the Riverdale “community” to host the May 31 meeting. While he did not reveal what he told those who attended, Harris signed off on the entirety of their claims, saying he admired “those students who’ve refused to bend” and “the parents who’ve stood by their children.”…

“I was dismayed to hear accounts by parents and children of attempts at what can only be described as not-so-subtle indoctrination and intimidation, mostly revolving around Middle East topics as well as anti-American and anti-capitalist sentiment, by a couple of teachers in the social studies/history department.”

Silverman reports that the parents who met with the AJC are high rollers:

By HuffPost’s calculations, the parents who received the May 30 email had donated upward of $500,000 to Riverdale in the 2016–17 fiscal year alone. (The 2017–18 report has not yet been released.) Because the school lists only funding ranges for donations in its annual report, it is possible the total is far greater…

The AJC meeting led to a third, supposedly open meeting at the school on June 11. “It was described as ‘a moment for us all to talk together about how we support and conduct civil discourse on our campus,’ Silverman reports, but the history teachers were asked to leave the meeting. And the script for the meeting was similar to the AJC gathering.

One parent spoke of teachers exacting “retribution” against students for disagreeing with a “left-wing, anti-free-enterprise, anti-Israel agenda.”

Another parent, a donor of upwards of $10,000 to the school in 2016, complained, “The anti-Israel, anti-capitalist, anti-American, anti-success narratives of resentment echo off the walls of this school.”

While Thomas Stern, the chairman of the board of the Birthright Israel Foundation, likened certain teachers to “a tumor that needs to be excised” from Riverdale, Silverman writes.

“If there’s any question about whether they’ve crossed the line,” he said, “check the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.”

Sam Levine, a big donor to the school whose wife Laurie Blitzer is a member of the board of directors of the Birthright Israel Foundation, smeared Doerfler as a bigot.

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, Doerfler “is effectively the equivalent on this issue of a white supremacist,” Levine said. As part of his spiel, Levine cited articles written by Doerfler that he said had been published by a “hate site,” a label also used by Stern…

Those were articles that Doerfler wrote for us. In this one, Doerfler disdained the idea of a “balanced” presentation of Israel, likening such instruction to teaching about South African apartheid in the 1980s. But he said that the Israel lobby is quick to descend on such dissent.

[As John] Mearsheimer suggests, the constant specter of harassment or public smearing does, in fact, have a ‘chilling effect’ on teaching. What teacher, after all, wants to take on the Israel Lobby and its local minions? In particular, what non-Jewish Riverdale teacher would want to wade into this hornet’s nest, knowing that unless he teaches the Zionist party line about Israel they may very well be accused of anti-Semitism?

Two days after the June 11 meeting, Doerfler was told by Randolph that his elective course on Israel and Palestine would no longer be offered. Doerfler resigned, and explained that decision to Silverman by email:

“Randolph communicated no criticism of the course itself: its curriculum, the way I taught it, or the classroom experience of students… Canceling a course for no academic or pedagogical reason was unprecedented in my 40 years of teaching experience. I resigned on principle because it would have been ignominious to return under such circumstances.”

Redden’s case is apparently still up in the air, as he has the coming semester off for paternity leave. Silverman’s piece suggests that no one expects he will teach at Riverdale again.

Silverman ends by quoting a Jewish parent of a recent graduate lamenting the officials’ decisions as “a terrible assault on the culture of the school” and a threat to free academic inquiry and progressive ideals. “To me, it’s upsetting that this could happen at a school like Riverdale, where the actions they took are the opposite of the values they espouse,” the parent said.

Silverman’s investigation is sure to shock graduates of the school, and the emails he obtained are likely to embarrass school officials. Maybe some will even be held to account.

Of course it is too bad that his investigation did not appear in the New York Times. Just as it is too bad that Al Jazeera has bottled up its documentary on the Israel lobby with no outcry from the American press.

All the same, Silverman’s investigation is a landmark of something we have long pushed for: investigative reporting of the Israel lobby inside the mainstream media. There’s a lot of dirt there.


Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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14 Responses

  1. Brewer on August 23, 2018, 4:59 pm

    The syntax (sin-tax?) of these witch-hunters always intrigues me. Notice how they tend to charge their victims with “being” not “doing”.

    “….Doerfler “is effectively the equivalent on this issue of a white supremacist,”
    “……likened certain teachers to “a tumor that needs to be excised””

    Two can play at that game. David Harris is a very dodgy character. Played 1st defence for the apartheid state on Huffpo for years. Often exposed as a prevaricator until all critics were banned from that rag.
    I once questioned Avi Shlaim on his being a fellow associate of St Anthony’s College. I’ve lost his reply but it roundly castigated that poseur.

    • CigarGod on August 23, 2018, 11:46 pm

      He pushed for war with Syria the whole time he was at Huffpo. In spite of his resume’ and title that he insisted he had a right to hold on to, he wasn’t very deep on middle east knowledge.
      He was a pretty easy butt to kick. He tended to disappear when you had him pinned.
      But then Huffpo was sold and they turned into an israel mouthpiece.

  2. Peter in SF on August 24, 2018, 3:06 am

    The school’s culture is generally liberal and cosmopolitan, though Silverman notes, “there are limits to Riverdale’s soft progressivism.”

    I think that line may have been intended as a joke. because Silverman’s article also makes note of “the cost of tuition and other expenses exceeding $50,000 per year.” In the Bronx, that’s 150% of median household income. I’m sure that students are acutely aware of the fact that it’s their parents’ wealth that allows them to attend one of the most expensive schools in the country. That would kind of have an effect on their “progressivism.” And then I don’t think they’d be surprised by this kind of donor influence on the school.

    • Mooser on August 24, 2018, 1:01 pm

      Yes, I imagine it’d take one heck of an education to make those kids “anti-capitalist”.

    • Keith on August 24, 2018, 5:39 pm

      PETER IN SF- “That would kind of have an effect on their “progressivism.”

      Extremely expensive “progressive” bumper stickers on their BMWs?

  3. RoHa on August 24, 2018, 7:42 am

    Are you now, or have you ever been…

  4. Cliff on August 24, 2018, 9:32 am

    So to summarize what happened (and has happened previously at other institutions to varying degrees; and WILL CONTINUE TO HAPPEN):

    1. Jewish donors hold special sway over administrative decisions at educational/cultural institutions.
    2. Pro-Israel groups get involved and lobby these institutions with the same simplistic, racist, bullshit arguments that exploit historical Jewish suffering (i.e., the Holocaust Industry).
    3. Administrators cave in – as do other Americans worried about their paychecks.
    4. The casualties are left without work and turned into pariahs – which is the goal of pro-Israel activism in the West. To make the Palestinian narrative itself an act of antisemitism or terrorism or whatever delusion the Zionists dream up.

    Summary: Get tenure then become vocal about Palestinian rights or think ahead. Thinking ahead? Video-tape your classes. So we can see what happened without relying on the recollections of Jewish pro-Israel students (who seem to be lying or hysterically blowing things out of proportion).

    We have seen videos of settlers’ behavior. We have seen the behavior of pro-Israel Jews at protests. We have seen pro-Israel pundits on television spewing the most superficial arguments that are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator and fit in neatly with the 24 hours news cycle mentality.

    This is the SAME basic tactics.

    Money + social pressure from Jewish identity politics (i.e., Holocaust Industry) + simplistic identity-politics-based argumentation (remember, all groups have social capital in America and Arabs and Muslims are at the very bottom).

    It’s harder for Zionist Jews to combat Blacks because there is a lot of sympathy for Black people – plus the Black community has it’s own story of collective suffering and abuse and can fight back with a similar narrative-based argument.

    But there is no parallel to Palestinian suffering. Palestinians are experiencing colonial oppression – for decades. Due to constant censorship by the pro-Israel community, this suffering has not been internalized by Americans in the same way Black suffering has.

    People are simple. And when it comes down to it, the formula of MONEY, IDENTITY POLITICS and HYSTERICS will win out against truth.

    It takes way more effort to combat bullshit than to spew bullshit. The Zionists spew bullshit, have money, and are well-versed in identity politics (ANTISEMITISM ANTISEMITISM ANTISEMITISM ANTISEMITISM).

    Record everything. Document everything. Be as antiseptic in your language as possible. Stick to the facts. Stick to news reporting, NGO reporting, etc. Draw analogies and again remove emotion from your rhetoric as much as possible.

    All the NORMAL things people get passionate about? We can’t do that. Zionist Jews are so full of HATE and CYNICISM that they do not view Palestinians and their supporters as human beings. They view us as ‘the enemy’ – and will LIE/CHEAT/STEAL to beat us.

    You have to be perfect. You have to think 10 steps ahead of them – or this shit happens.

    • CigarGod on August 24, 2018, 3:05 pm

      You get to say: Holocaust Industry, and I get censored for it.

      • echinococcus on August 24, 2018, 6:18 pm

        Go figure. It may be a members-only policy.
        I’d propose a supporting-readers’ perk: like if you contribute $ X0 or plus you get exempted from moderation for a month in addition to a thank-you mug, and so on… I’m not sure they’ll accept my suggestion, though. They never do.

      • Mooser on August 24, 2018, 7:08 pm

        “like if you contribute $ X0 or plus you get exempted from moderation for a month”

        For a few people, that would be a valuable perk.

  5. peterfeld on August 24, 2018, 9:53 am

    Riverdale alumni and community members, please sign this open letter:

  6. Maghlawatan on August 24, 2018, 12:25 pm

    I wonder for how much longer rabid Zionists will be able to defend the position that human rights equal Jew hatred. Because it is bullshit.
    Israel is a failed state.

  7. Stogumber on August 27, 2018, 4:16 pm

    Harris said that he admired “those students who’ve refused to bend” and “the parents who’ve stood by their children.”
    I empathize with Harris here. The student may be wrong about the facts, but she had a right to leave the class and Redden abused his position when he threatened her about her grades.

    And Doerfler is confused – whining that he is enforced to teach the Zionist party line, when he himself admits that he was simply asked for a “balanced approach” and refused even this.

  8. Kathleen on August 28, 2018, 11:19 am

    We know that this kind of pressure on U.S. campuses and elsewhere has gone on for decades. So important that it has been called out and identified by name and place the last 10 years. Even Huffington Post joining truth efforts.

    In just a bit we will either watch Andrea Mitchell interview former President Carter or watch an already taped interview on MSNBC.

    Wonder if Andrea Mitchell will bring up how Israel has killed, imprisoned destroyed the lives of so many Palestinians since Carter’s efforts to bring peace into that conflict decades ago

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