Today the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the Fieldston School fired a Jewish history teacher, J.B. Brager, after Brager published anti-Zionist comments.
It is the second time in two years that a Jewish history teacher has been forced out of a private New York high school due to anti-Zionist statements. In 2018 longtime history teacher Joel Doerfler left the Riverdale Country School after administrators canceled his class on the history of the conflict because of his questioning of the official narrative.
In both cases, outraged Jewish donors to the schools are said to have pushed the school administrations to take a stand against anti-Zionism.
Brager was fired amidst a controversy at the school over a speaker, Kayum Ahmed of Columbia Law School, who said last November that Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians stems from Jewish persecution during the Holocaust.
The JTA cites two tweets by Brager:
According to Tablet and the Washington Free Beacon, sometime following Ahmed’s remarks, Brager tweeted, “I refuse to ‘reaffirm the value’ of ethno-nationalist settler colonialism.”
Brager commented again after the principal of the Fieldston upper school announced a school assembly featuring two Zionist rabbis, Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and Joshua Davidson from Temple Emanu-El. JTA says that Brager tweeted,
“for a school assembly on anti-Semitism, SURE GO AHEAD and invite two white men who run Reform congregations, both of whom are Zionists, one [Davidson] that wrote that the ‘most insidious strain [of American anti-Semitism] is that of anti-Zionist intersectionality [on the far-left].’”
Hirsch is also a firebreather, who has likened the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace to Osama bin Laden.
A letter to Fieldston trustees protesting Brager’s firing as evidence of the “weaponization of anti-Semitism” by one group of Jews against another has already gotten over 150 signatures today. It says Fieldston fired Brager to signal to “conservative Jewish donors” that it would “punish dissenters.” The firing of a “progressive, queer, Jewish teacher” is highly concerning, the letter says, at a time that many at Fieldston have sought to address racism at the school.
Key excerpts of that letter:
We are absolutely outraged that the Fieldston School has fired a Jewish history teacher, JB Brager, in the midst of a furor over alleged anti-Semitism at the school.
Voices from inside the school have made it clear that the administration fired JB in response to pressure from a small set of conservative parents, who in turn were supported by smear attacks on JB in the right-wing press. Those attacks focused on JB’s gender expression and personal investment in human rights struggles. Rather than stand up against such attacks, Fieldston has embraced them.
We see clearly that Fieldston administrators Jessica Bagby and Nigel Furlonge are not interested in addressing anti-Semitism or protecting Jewish community members, but in signaling to conservative Jewish donors that the school will punish dissenters from those donors’ views. This weaponization of anti-Semitism is the subject of a pitched battle within Jewish communities, with organizations like the Anti-Defamation League attacking tens of thousands of young, progressive, and Orthodox Jews as “anti-Semites.” It is despicable that Fieldston has lent its strength to the side of this intra-community battle that supports Trump policies, endless wars, Islamophobia, and anti-Black racism….
Fieldston is an extremely privileged school in a city of people, most struggling against combined racial and economic injustice, who have broadly pledged to resist the racist, anti-immigrant, and violent directions of national policy. This is the wrong time for Fieldston to allow its privileged circles to shut down and punish the pursuit of anti-racist ethics.
Signatories to the letter include many Jews, such as Jonathan House, who writes, “My father was on the Board of Ethical Culture [Fieldston School] in the 50s and/or 60s… My family is both Jewish and has always opposed Zionism.”
But Zionist advocates say that 95 percent of the Jewish community is pro-Israel. Certainly Zionism is an orthodoxy among older Jews, and coverage of the Fieldston controversy that Brager was caught up in conflates Jews and Zionists (much as they were conflated during the attacks on Joel Doerfler).
Speaker Kayum Ahmed is a lecturer at Columbia Law and an executive at the Open Society. In his November 21 speech, he spoke of “the fluidity between those who are victims becoming perpetrators” and related that idea to Israel. “Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel today—they perpetuate violence against Palestinians that [is] unthinkable,” he reportedly said.
Sean Cooper reported at Tablet that Ahmed’s comments shocked Jews, and hit on a faultline at the school between the privileged and those who are engaged in intersectional politics.
Jewish parents at Fieldston who heard about Ahmed’s remarks were shaken and outraged, texting in chat circles and even threatening, privately, to withdraw their children from the school…. [S]ome of the Jewish students present registered the moment with fear and confusion, according to multiple parents and others familiar with the event….
“If someone was coming to Fieldston to talk about apartheid and went off on a rant about the pea-sized brains of women who belong in a kitchen, or repeated racist tropes, or ranted about any form of homophobia or racism or sexism, immediately—immediately—teachers would have stood up and said, ‘that’s not how we feel, that’s not an idea we share,’” one parent told me. “And immediately after that a note would have gone out to every parent, condemning the remarks, offering counseling for those harmed and detailing education to prevent similar incidents in the future. And yet the students in that assembly saw none of that, because it’s part of the assumption at Fieldston that Jewish students are rich and white and thus privileged, so it doesn’t matter.”…
Cooper said the tensions went back to a 2015 project at the school to identify “affinity groups” on the basis of identity, but these groups that did not include Jews. Jewish parents were upset that they were understood to be privileged. The process “shocked and frightened certain Jewish parents—first erasing what they understood to be the history of Jewish exclusion, isolation and murder, while simultaneously confining Jews to the category of history’s not-good people,” Cooper reported.
During a 2017 controversy over that diversity program The New York Times quoted the head of the school, Jessica Bagby, as saying that Jewish and Zionist parents felt alienated by the program.
We have a problem in that some members of our community who identify themselves as Jewish, and some who even might identify themselves — self-identify — as Zionists, do not feel embraced by this program
Brager is a queer activist in their 30s who was hired at the school in August 2018, according to Brager’s website. They have a Ph.D. in women and gender studies from Rutgers University and a body of political/artistic work, including a lot of writings and comics.
Brager tweeted this anti-Zionist message during Hanukkah:
Making latkes tonight for my birthday and Channukah, text me if you want to come over. No Zionists.
Brager’s 2015 review of a book published by the dissident Israeli soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence emphasizes the erasure of Palestinians:
the Palestinian is conversely always missing. If Gaza is a land without a people, we are presented with a Goldilocks fiction of occupation, where Goldilocks is the victim because the bear’s beds are too hard and too soft, and they don’t want her in their home at all.
Brager faulted the militant groupthink of Zionism:
I could show this video [by B’Tselem of a raid on a Palestinian home] to any number of Israelis or Zionists who would see nothing wrong with this picture. [Two books under review] are ultimately about the gaze, about the ability of Israelis to see themselves as perpetrators and about the ability of Palestinians to return, refuse, or otherwise manage the disciplining gaze of military and international aid organizations alike.
One happy conclusion from this controversy. The embattled territory is a private NY high school. Ahmed teaches at Columbia Law and his comments have not prompted some deep interrogation, evidently. Columbia was embattled 10 years ago famously, but anti-Zionism is established now in academic communities. (Just ask Bari Weiss.) Anti-Zionism is today an default stance in progressive circles, and it’s coming to the Democratic Party. Fieldston is a relatively small pond in a conservative Jewish community. And yes, this is a pitched struggle.
Update: Jewish Democratic Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Max Rose have slammed Ahmed’s comments in a letter to Fieldston administrators sent two days before Brager’s firing. They ascribe the uptick in attacks on Jews to speech critical of Israel. “Violent antisemitic groups have singled out and targeted Jewish communities in our districts as ‘Zionists’…”
“There should be no place in our national discourse for hate-filled speech targeting any group,” wrote Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) and Congressman Max Rose (NY-11) in a letter to the Head of School and Principal. “As Jewish Members of Congress dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism, we would like to understand how such a speaker could be invited to address ECFS students, what steps the school has taken to hold those responsible accountable, how the school has communicated to students and parents that such rhetoric is unacceptable, and how ECFS will implement processes to prevent future incidents.”