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.
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.”
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.