Founded in 1877 by Felix Adler, a German-born American Jew and the son of a prominent rabbi, the Society of Ethical Culture preached a quasi-secular ethical humanism that grew out of Adler’s own attempt to universalize Judaism. The elementary school Adler established—originally intended to cater to the children of the working poor—eventually evolved into the Fieldston School, a highly selective Manhattan private school that sends a number of its graduates to the Ivy League every year.
Last month, Kayum Ahmed, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, came to Fieldston to speak to students about apartheid; in response to a question from the audience he made the follow comment regarding the destruction of European Jewry:
The attacks [i.e., the Holocaust] are a shameful part of history, but in some ways it reflects the fluidity between those who are victims becoming perpetrators. . . . That Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the state of Israel today—they perpetuate violence against Palestinians that [is] unthinkable.”
Needless to say, many Jewish students and parents were horrified, but, writes Sean Cooper, faculty and administrators were at best unsympathetic. For instance:
In the wake of the event, J.B. Brager, one of the history department’s instructors who teaches a Holocaust elective, posted several public Twitter messages about the event and the resulting upset—none of which acknowledged the feelings of Jewish students or parents, or even the history of the Holocaust. . . . Instead, Brager chose to use the moment to assert her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “I refuse to ‘reaffirm the value’ of ethnonationalist settler colonialism,” Brager wrote. “I support BDS and Palestinian sovereignty and I have for my entire adult life.”
As Cooper goes on to detail, this was hardly an isolated incident. When swastikas began to appear around the school, the administration organized a presentation about the symbol’s pre-Nazi history. Cooper argues that these and many other incidents are symptoms of the school’s adoption of a social-justice “catechism,” pervaded by notions of intersectionality, in which students are taught to see themselves, and the world, through the lens of racial and economic “privilege.” And students have caught on to the fact that Jews, since they are white, can’t be victims:
The story of the Jews directly threatens to undermine the core theory of oppressed-versus-oppressors on which the entire social-justice movement rests. There is no way for an institution successfully to embrace that ideology without, at best, ignoring or minimizing the Jewish experience—or, in more heated moments, erasing them entirely.
[But] it is also easy to imagine why Fieldston’s administrators and faculty might have no sense that they are doing anything wrong. Indeed, since these ideas are now the gospel preached at, and encoded into, the campus policy handbooks of America’s elite universities, which are the intended destinations for the school’s graduates, “social justice” is not just (or even) a set of personal and professional morals; it’s simply good business