Schechter Westchester has no plans to respond publicly to activist Pamela Geller’s article quoting an email she allegedly received from a former SW student concerning a program at the school two years ago and questioning the priorities of Jewish day schools, according to high school principal Eric Bassin.
Bassin, who was the original faculty adviser for The Lion’s Roar and worked on his high school and college newspapers, expressed concern more about a lack of journalistic integrity of Geller’s article than about the nature of her argument. Bassin said that the article, which was published online at Breitbart News Network last Tuesday, used an anonymous quote and misleading information allegedly provided by an SW alumnus to “unfortunate” effect.
“I would have liked to respond directly to the student and talk to the student directly, perhaps,” Bassin said, “but I don’t have that opportunity, without knowing who it was.”
The email quoted in the article referred to a special program two years ago, where Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, “[told] the story of how she organized a series of NYC subway ads last year fighting hatred and bigotry,” according to the Daily Bulletin from that morning. This was one example of ways in which T’ruah has carried out its mission statement to “[bring] together rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism, together with all members of the Jewish community, to act on the Jewish imperative to respect and advance the human rights of all people.”
Jacobs’ project responded to advertisements that Geller placed in New York City and Washington D.C. subway systems that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.” Jacobs led a coalition of Jewish and Christian clergy groups in funding adjacent advertisements that read, “In a choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.”
“I am [a] 19-year-old college student,” the alleged SW alum said in the first paragraph of the quoted email. “I just wanted to express my support and let you know that a few years ago my high school, Solomon Schechter Westchester, invited a speaker from Truah specifically to bash you for 45 straight minutes. Jill Jacobs said you were a bigoted racist who gives Jews a bad name. My classmates, upon seeing your bus signs and being told they were directed at Islam as a whole, not only Jihadists, said they were embarrassed to be a part of your religion.”
SW administration recalls the program differently.
“[The article] suggested that we had a presentation, which we didn’t have, in content,” Bassin said. “It’s argued that we had someone come and present that Pamela Geller was the target of the presentation and that the presentation was about Pamela Geller and her work. It just wasn’t. I think she may have been mentioned once, but it certainly was not the focus of the presentation, by any means.”Rabbi Joshua Cahan, the faculty member responsible for organizing that special program, expressed a similar concern that the alleged student who wrote the email “grossly misunderstood what the program was about.”
“We very explicitly planned a program that was not about Israel at all,” Cahan said. “She mentioned Israel in passing in one sentence, but her program was about coming to the defense of Muslims, who live in New York—in our own community, [which] had nothing to do with Israel or Palestinians, at all.”
The email to Geller—whom the Anti-Defamation League has described as an “anti-Muslim activist”—also mentioned that the administration declined the alleged student’s request to invite Geller to speak to students, “on the grounds that you preach ‘hate speech’ and that the school doesn’t tolerate that.” Though neither Cahan nor Bassin recall precisely the school’s response, both said they would evaluate whether to bring Geller in to speak the same way they would evaluate any other speaker. Bassin said that it is not likely that the school would ultimately bring in Geller to speak to the students.
“I think people know who Pamela Geller is. It [would] not reflect badly on the school [if] we took a stand against her,” Cahan said. “Pamela Geller bought billboards all around New York City saying, in essence, ‘If you love Israel, you have to hate all Muslims.’ All you have to do is spend five minutes reading anything else that Pamela Geller has written to know that she meant, ‘You have to hate all Muslims.’”
In email correspondence with a TLR reporter, Geller said her goal in publishing the article was “to expose how Schechter Westchester and all too many other schools are no longer devoted to teaching students to think clearly, but are merely centers of leftist indoctrination, turning out programmed drones for the enemies of the [U.S.] and Israel.”
Geller pointed to SW as part of a larger trend of Jewish day schools that, according to Geller, are pursuing a leftist agenda and need to “loosen the ideological straitjacket.”
“Schools and colleges are generally and increasingly authoritarian and inhospitable to dissenting voices,” Geller said in an email to a TLR reporter. “For today’s authoritarian academics, only one point of view is acceptable. They celebrate all kinds of ‘diversity’ except intellectual diversity.”
Bassin said SW aims to give students the opportunity to develop their own ideological standpoints. The special program about the Iran nuclear deal, Bassin said, is a perfect example. Associate Head of School for Jewish Life and Learning Rabbi Harry Pell presented a fact-based overview of the deal and the main arguments supporting and opposing the deal. The goal of that program was to provide students with enough information to take an educated stance on the deal.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to make a case that the school actively, or even subtly, promotes a political agenda that’s leftist,” Bassin said, “but [we] do want students to be aware of issues related to social justice. We do promote intercultural dialogue and understanding and interreligious dialogue and understanding. Tolerance, chesed—I mean, these are certainly our values.”
Cahan said he has no regrets about bringing Jacobs in to speak and is “proud” of that program and of the work Jacobs has done for American Muslims.
“We know what it means to be marginalized and told, ‘You don’t belong here.’ It’s horrible,” Cahan said. “And there’s this whole group of people, [who are] American citizens [and] took real heart from people from other communities willing to step forward and say, ‘These are our neighbors.’ And that’s what I wanted her to talk about, and that’s what she did talk about.”