Open letter to Lerner School: So, about Israel...

Susie Dym,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Susie Dym
Susie Dym serves as spokesperson for Mattot Arim, with over 20 years of expertise on "peace-for-peace" issues.

Open letter to Lerner School, North Carolina: So about Israel...

School principal Ms. Allison Oakes, who heads Lerner School in North Carolina, has made leadership remarks about the recent crisis in the school. Ms. Oakes has “strongly encouraged” the community and the public at large to reach out to her if anything about Lerner School makes them uncomfortable or just does not sound right. “I am here to engage in conversation with you,” she said. That is how an educator speaks.

From here  in Israel – far from North Carolina - there seem to be 4 main questions to explore in conversation:

Question 1: Is the Lerner school living up to its stated mission and core values - support for and love for Israel?

The Lerner School says it has an “unwavering commitment” to “inculcate a connection with and love for the State of Israel. “ The school’s website makes it clear how anxious the school is, that no-one should feel the need to question “the integrity of The Lerner School or our commitment to Eretz Yisrael”. All these statements are extremely encouraging.

However, there can be a reality within a school, that in Hebrew we call, “milim lechud, ve-maasim lechud”. This could be loosely translated as “actions speak louder than words”. It is clear from the website that Lerner School truly works to live up to pro-Israel values. But at the same time, troubling realities seem to occur at Lerner School, at times. In particular, maps of Israel are sometimes such contentious objects within the Lerner community, that they have apparently, at times,  been difficult to display at the school.

Similarly,  Ms. Oakes’s first days at Lerner school apparently coincided with the dramatic summer in which Israel was attacked from Gaza. As she frankly  divulged, “a conscious decision was made to not send out communication regarding the conflict in Israel” at that time -   “so that my first communication  on behalf of Lerner [would] not be about Israel.” This suggests that expressing support for Israel is not always a  consensual matter of course at Lerner but instead is sometimes a touchy issue with which some in the Lerner School community  disagree. About this, more below.

Question 2: Have certain Lerner school community members acted or spoken in violation of Lerner’s core values about Israel, in a private capacity but while at the school?

    Some members of the Lerner school do seem to have acted or spoken in violation of Lerner’s core values about Israel, in a private capacity. If you strive to BDS Israel or criticize Israel harshly, publicly, and disproportionally relative to other countries and other concerns, for example, you simply are not a supporter or lover of Israel; you are instead a supporter or lover of other values which you strongly believe that Israel lacks.

    It seems as though some of these actions and speech (in a private capacity) did occur during people’s period of employment at the school, such as displaying of BDS signs. Or: “my partner and I are in my parents' car, heading to the demonstration ....We chant ... “Gaza, stand strong...”.

https://www.facebook.com/notes/rann-bar-on/an-eyewitness-account-of-the-haifa-anti-war-demonstration-19th20th-july-2014/780277911993604

This demonstration was held 19th or 20th July 2014. In other words, this was a vigil while Israel’s soldiers were fighting the Hamas in Gaza to put an end to the rockets being lobbed at Israel’s children. Israel’s army was trying to destroy tunnels being built by Gaza’s militias with the aim of penetrating the very homes  and lives of Israel’s civilians.

    Gaza stand strong?? Would not pro-Israel values motivate one to chant, “ISRAEL stand strong”? Especially at such a terrible time?

Question 3: is it possible that some members of the Lerner school have acted or spoken in violation of Lerner’s core values about Israel, in their official capacity?

   

    Unfortunately, those who speak for the Lerner School apparently  have chosen to “support” all three members of its community who were mentioned in recent publications, such as the piece in October 2015 and the recent petition.  Such “support” does not seem to jive with the a-political stance which the school would like to maintain.

    Those who speak for the Lerner School insist none of the criticized members of the Lerner Community “has ever acted or spoken in violation of Lerner’s mission or core values about Israel”. This endorsement is qualified by the words, “at Lerner, to Lerner’s students or on behalf of Lerner”. But other statements suggest that school officials are using their position to promote the (radical) view that certain radical actions and speech do not constitute any “violation of Lerner’s mission or core values about Israel”. For example,

Lerner School Board president Tal Lewin Wittle, according to Frontpage, took the position in an internal memo,  that displaying a BDS sign  does not run counter to the Lerner School’s mission or core values of love and support for Israel. Disseminating this view within an a-political school community  is just as radical – perhaps more radical – than actually holding the BDS sign!

Question 4:  Should persons who in their private lives act or speak in violation of Lerner’s core values about Israel, hold influential positions within the school community?

    The Lerner School says no-one may use their position to promote personal political beliefs. It follows that anyone of any school of thought can safely hold positions of influence in Lerner School.  Whether or not a teacher traveled to Gaza or an administrator wrote an article expressing her own opinion about certain issues in Israel “is immaterial and has no bearing on” the school as a school, according to this way of thinking.

    But is this realistic? One member of the Lerner School community, for example, speaking of  the school in which she herself studied, said “It’s not that I’m going around school trying to provoke people, telling them “Don’t go to the (Israeli) Army, it’s evil” without explaining it, or anything like that”. But “when people ask me what I think, of course I tell them. I think that’s the most natural thing to do.” It should be expected, then,  that this activist will, while at Lerner School, do exactly that -- what she terms  “the most natural thing” --  namely eagerly respond to any question or concern expressed by children or others, by saying or hinting, “Don’t go to the (Israeli) Army, it’s evil”. The same is the case for anyone who deplore “

injustice in Israel/Palestine” so strongly  that they boycott companies for this reason.

       It is indeed each person’s or administrator’s or  teacher’s absolute democratic right to think that any country, x, such as, say,  Israel, is a thoroughly evil country which has elected an immoral government and maintains a band of thugs namely the IDF. Democracy truly means that we each have the right to believe whatever we want. But if this is the case, you do not support and love Israel -  you instead support and love your own personal concept of what Israel is supposed to be doing, not the actual State of Israel which you feel you need to be denigrating.

    Rabbi Nachman of Breslev is said to have been asked by a student what did he really mean by the Land of Israel, i.e. surely he was referring to the Land of Israel as a theoretical concept?  The great Rabbi Nachman is said to have retorted, “No – no theoretical concept – I mean the actual Land of Israel, the one with the streets and the houses!!”

    As human rights activist and former dissident Natan-Anatoly Sharansky observed recently, “This is the great success of our enemies – they have succeeded in grabbing the flag of human rights.... In the eyes of the liberal Jews in the United States,  Israel is anti-human rights”.

    The best self-check for the Lerner School, then,  is to ask itself this: are all our teachers and community leaders  committed to the actual Land of Israel and the Jewish state which has risen therewithin – not the theoretical liberal concept of Israel, but instead the actual State of Israel, occasional wart and all --  the one with the streets and the houses?

    Also, to show a commitment to peace in the community,   the school should indeed withdraw the lawsuit against the Rachmut family. Yes, tuition is crucial for small day schools, and yes, the operative date passed before the family withdrew. But this family has aired a weighty educational concern, namely how do American Jewish educators -- and those that feed them -- see  Israel. Not the theoretical concept of Israel -- the Israel with the streets and the houses.

    For source materials about the Lerner School’s Israel controversy:

http://www.lernerschool.org/#!/cy48

http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Lerner-s-Gesher--January-8--2015.html?soid=1117799148926&aid=eg--FlZXR70#LETTER.BLOCK97

http://media.wix.com/ugd/07fb26_d0bb2e9150654b9599bc9bf37bb8da88.pdf

http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/260366/bds-infests-jewish-day-school-ari-lieberman

http://www.labournet.net/other/0212/tal1.html

https://www.facebook.com/northcarolinaJVP/photos/pb.1512230915656498.-2207520000.1442876842./1547960085416914/?type=3&theater

http://5tjt.com/north-carolina-jewish-day-school-embroiled-in-legal-battle-with-former-parents-over-tuition-israel/

http://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2016/2/17/a-new-breed-of-israel-divide-one-family-vs-a-school-and-a-jewish-community#.VsR35jZUPFI=

    POSTSCRIPT:

    As an aside -- the Lerner School crisis  has exposed concern on the part of some very powerful institutions normally content to remain in the sidelines. The Federation, for example,  galvanized itself to send out a warning email, that “a former school family” has taken what they termed a “private” tuition contract dispute, to the media.   And as President of the Federation, the author of the email clarified that  “The Federation and Lerner have a long shared history and a strong, unshakable partnership.  We support and sponsor Lerner”. The Federation email warned readers that they should not     visit    FrontPage    or    any    other site that    posted    “inaccurate    articles” (i.e. articles critical of the Lerner School and, by association, the Federation) since “[v]isits    to    these    sites    pushes    the    URLs    higher    up    in    Internet    search    results”. So zealous is the Federation about stifling publicity to an alternative viewpoint,  that it offers the following service: “If    you    would    like    to    read    an    article    or    the    petition,    we    can    send    you    a    PDF” (anything to prevent you from clicking on a link that does not present the party line). https://gallery.mailchimp.com/683e88c7a7003a72bf21ef56e/files/How_to_Help_Lerner.pdf).

    Of course, as citizens of a democracy, all are aware that “in the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy” and that “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors”. In this context -- the Jewish community context -   “serving the governed, not the governors” means that the press covering the Lerner School fiasco is providing an informational service to ordinary people – rather than a promotional service to the Federation. Should not the Federation respect the online coverage of the Lerner School crisis? Why should the Federation behave as though they have something to fear as the issue is aired?