A new breed of Israel divide: one family vs. a school and a Jewish community

 

 

Click photo to download. Caption: The Lerner School in Durham, N.C. Credit: Facebook.

By Andrew Pessin/JNS.org

(Part 1 of a two-part series)

Ask two Jews, you get three opinions—or is it four? We’re a people so fractious that we can’t even agree on how many different opinions we generate. Two millennia after the fall of the Second Temple—due, it is said, to the bickering among factions—not much has changed. From Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) to J Street to AIPAC, the Jews remain a house divided, with battles occurring on many fronts, such as in synagogues, community centers, and universities. And now, apparently, regrettably, even at Jewish day schools. 

Some of the basic facts of this developing drama are ably reported here, but the issues this story raises quickly get deep and complex.

“Defend the Jewish People Against the Anti-Israel Lerner School,” proclaimed the ominous online petition, bearing approximately 1,100 signatures before it mysteriously disappeared around Feb. 10. Formerly The Jewish Community Day School, The Lerner School—the perpetrator in (or the unfairly targeted victim of) this petition—is an elementary and preschool providing Jewish education in Durham, N.C. An “anti-Israel” Jewish school is more than conceivable, of course, considering how many Jews proudly campaign against the Jewish state. Nor is there any shortage of such Jews around campuses, and the Lerner School is close to both Duke University and the University of North Carolina (UNC). So what did the Lerner School do to deserve this scandalous label?

Nothing, according to outraged school officials, as well as several equally outraged families in the school who reached out to me to support the school. These people first offered their own pro-Israel credentials (impressive), then offered their personal testimony about the school (very positive). Moreover, they added, a look at the school website would convince even the most committed Zionist of the school’s pro-Israel bona fides. (It does.) And finally, the school was selected in December 2015 to be among the final cohort in the endowment-building program, Generations, partly supported by the AVI CHAI foundation—and AVI CHAI’s mission limits it expressly to supporting only programs that “express a positive attitude toward Israel,” and “instill in…students an attachment to the State of Israel.” So pretty clearly, at least now, the school should satisfy even the ardent Zionist Jew.

What was going on here instead, they explained, was very simple. A family had reneged on their tuition contract for the 2014-15 school year, and in response to the school’s appropriately seeking legal redress for that money the family was now smearing the school. Don’t believe the lies, the “blasphemies,” one person told me. This family was on a personal money-motivated vendetta to destroy the school.

At least these facts are clear. Sloan and Guy Rachmuth signed a contract in February 2014 to enroll their two children for the 2014-15 school year, committing them to pay about $20,000 in tuition. But over the summer of 2014, the Rachmuths decided to withdraw their children, after passing the several deadlines where the contract would have allowed them to recover any of that commitment. Since day schools rely heavily on tuition, and since their successful operation requires their knowing their budgets in advance, such contracts are common and fully binding. When the Rachmuths refused to pay, the school felt it had no choice but to file suit in September 2014 for breach of contract. The Rachmuths didn’t budge. In February 2015, a non-binding arbitrator affirmed the school’s opinion that the contract was binding.

Simple enough. You sign a contract agreeing to pay a certain amount, you have to pay it. 

Ask two Jews, though, and you get an earful of opinions.

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Before reaching our opinion, however, we must ask why the Rachmuths withdrew their children, about six months after signing the contract but before school started. (For the record, their children didn’t attend a single day of the school year in question. The Rachmuths home-schooled them rather than send them to Lerner, paying more for that privilege than they would have paid to Lerner.)

All was not well at the Lerner School, the Rachmuths say, in the years around 2013-14. At the center of it—sigh—was the subject of Israel.

The Rachmuths are passionate supporters of Israel and committed to giving their children a strong Jewish education including, as a necessary component in their view, a love of Israel. But they felt the school was taking a very troubling turn with respect to Israel. The title of an October 7, 2015, article about the school didn’t mince words in describing that turn: “BDS infests a Jewish Day School.” That strong language—not atypical for that publication, which writes from a strident right-wing perspective—may be a serious exaggeration, particularly applied to the school today (which has clearly strengthened its pro-Israel credentials in the 18 months since the Rachmuths withdrew their children in protest). And yet it does appear to have fastened around a kernel of truth.

“BDS” refers to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a movement that is thriving and growing in and around many major universities. Groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) promote BDS on campuses and in college towns, often working with collaborators such as JVP and Jews for a Just Peace. All three groups are particularly prominent in and around Duke and UNC.

What does this have to do with the Lerner School?

Too much, say the Rachmuths. 

Uncomfortable things were occurring, and multiplying. Maps of Israel were taken down in classrooms. Their 5-year-old son came home asking why the map of Israel hurt some people’s feelings. The school abruptly changed its admissions policy, now allowing non-Jewish children to enter its pre-K. The word “Jewish” came off the school’s name and letterhead, as the school seemed to be rebranding itself from the Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School to simply The Lerner School, apparently diluting its Jewish identity. The Rachmuths’ repeated requests that the school improve its security were dismissed as silly and paranoid. During the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the school refused to support Israel publicly. On top of it all, the Rachmuths learned some very uncomfortable things about several school personnel. (We’ll focus on the two most important, but there are others.)

Rachel Bearman was the school’s development director, having been with the school in various capacities since 2000, including serving as president of its board from 2009-12. But she wasn’t merely active at Lerner. She was also active in Jews for a Just Peace, a group whose notion of “just peace” looked to the Rachmuths to require everything of Israel and nothing of the Palestinians, and which had campaigned against the security barrier that has saved countless Israeli lives. This group was also willing to join forces in protesting Israeli policies with groups such as SJP and the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, whose Israel-hating (and perhaps Jew-hating) bona fides were themselves pretty clear. Bearman has also supported a campaign demanding that the United States end all military support of Israel. The Rachmuths obtained a copy of Bearman’s master’s thesis, “Islam, Nationalism, and the Formation of Palestinian Identity,” submitted for a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from American University. This thesis spoke of the “oppressive impact of Israeli retaliations on the Palestinian populace,” “Israeli policies of collective punishment,” described the 1987 Palestinian intifada as a “collective ‘shrugging off’ of the humiliation of occupation,” and summarized Palestinian experience during the years 1999-2002 in terms of “despair and hopelessness” at the “continued daily humiliations of occupation,” all of which gives one a fairly clear sense of her orientation with respect to the conflict. 

When reached for comment, Bearman replied that the online petition’s label of “vigorous anti-Israel activist” was “absolutely…not a fair or in any sense accurate description” of her. Concerning her thesis, she replied that the work she completed “some 20 years ago,” for her master’s degree “in 1995,” has “absolutely nothing to do with my work today for the Lerner School.” Confusingly, the title page of the thesis itself dates it explicitly to 2003, and when I reached out for clarification, I was told that she had finished her studies in 1995, but only finished and submitted the thesis itself in 2003. In any case, Bearman neither repudiated her earlier work or orientation in any way, nor answered my request to see a complete copy of the thesis. And while it may be fair enough to question the use of a 20-year-old (or 12-year-old) document to “indict” her (her phrase), and no one doubts her commitment to the Lerner School, it does appear that the sentiments described in the extracts above are continuous with her activities in the years since the work. And while others in the community have reached out to me to attest to her and her family’s commitment to Israel, Bearman did not herself use the opportunity to deny any of the specific claims about her work and orientation.

But even more uncomfortable for the Rachmuths was the discovery that someone in the classroom conflicted with their own strongly held pro-Israel values. Variously described as a Hebrew teacher, an art teacher, a 3rd-grade teaching assistant, and as the person in charge of the school’s environmental curriculum, Tal Matalon was an Israeli expat, a “refusenik” (some say “draft dodger”) who had declined to serve in the IDF, and had signed an open letter to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon claiming that “the state of Israel commits war crimes and tramples over human rights.” She openly worked with Israel-hating groups such as SJP, proudly posted a photo of herself on the JVP Facebook page condemning Israeli “oppression” and supporting a boycott of Israel, and went back to Haifa during the 2014 Gaza conflict to protest against Israel’s war of self-defense against Hamas. Her husband posted an account of their experience on his Facebook page and then on the virulent Israel-hating website Mondoweiss, for all to see. 

She also posted a topless, if tasteful, photo of herself online.

None of that is illegal of course, and all agree that Matalon is free to believe and behave however she wants on her personal time. In response to the Rachmuths’ concerns about her the school, perhaps admirably, defended Matalon on just those grounds, noting that what mattered was only that Matalon taught the required curriculum and adhered in the classroom to the school’s mission and values. And there surely is something right about that. One does not seek a McCarthy-like environment where employees and job applicants are grilled about their political beliefs, their livelihoods on the line. And in any case, the Lerner School, like all such institutions, can survive only by catering to a very diverse population with political opinions across the spectrum. The fact is, plenty of Jews, plenty of Israelis, occupy positions on the left and far left, and they have as much a right as anyone to be included within the Lerner tent—as long as their behavior in the work place remains within the school’s stated values and ideology. (The same would go, presumably, for those on the right and far right.)

True enough—but there’s still more to be said here.

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The school is a private institution, and while it may be illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of various protected classes, there is also no obligation to hire or keep anyone if their political opinions and other values are not in keeping with those the institution would like to project. “Far left on Israel” is not a protected class of persons (or “far right”). To accommodate such individuals is a choice the school makes, and can freely not make.

And perhaps Matalon’s, and Bearman’s, extracurricular activities would have no immediate impact on the atmosphere inside the school—though in the case of the former it’s surely a fair worry that Matalon’s political opinions might come across one way or another to her students, perhaps in her tone, in her casual remarks, in her selective telling of stories about Israel, and so on. A teacher in the school suggested that “Maps of Israel hurt some people’s feelings.” Was that a statement of empirical fact (one that is true enough), or was it a subtle political opinion, suggesting that it’s because of Israel’s awful actions that the flag hurts feelings? 

And can one really restrict one’s concerns to the classroom? What, for example, 

would the Rachmuths tell their children when they happen upon a rally, in downtown Durham, condemning Israel’s miscellaneous atrocities, and there they discover their children’s teacher at the front of the crowd, shouting angry slogans alongside some serious angry Jew-haters?

Being an adult film star (say) is not illegal either. But that doesn’t mean an elementary school is well-advised to hire one, or that parents are out of line in preferring that their children not be taught by one—even if (one assumes) she does not practice her craft in the classroom. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy here for the Rachmuths, whose love of Israel, a state under attack seemingly everywhere these days, could not let them allow their children to be taught by people who are openly serious in their campaigns against Israel. They were at least as uncomfortable at that prospect as some might be at the prospect of a porn star teaching their children.

All this came to a head in the summer of 2014, as they learned these details about Matalon, when Matalon openly protested against Israel during the Gaza war, when the school simply ignored their repeated complaints about her, and then when, in the end, the school refused to take any public stance in support of Israel during that war. At the same time the school was dismissive of the Rachmuths’ repeated requests for increased security, a matter of great personal importance to them as well, having family under attack in Israel and having themselves been near the finish line when the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

Different people feel differently.

But if my children’s Jewish school could not even say a word in defense of Israel against Hamas, a genocidal internationally designated terrorist organization, and refused to take my security concerns seriously—then I wouldn’t want my children there either.

Simple, right? You sign a contract, you are obligated to pay it.

But what if, after signing the contract, you learn more things about the place? Important and disturbing things? What would happen if you found out your child’s potential teacher was an adult film star, openly and proudly so, peddling her wares on her website? What if you found out she secretly harbored racist beliefs, for example against African-Americans, or about Palestinians? Or what if you were a left-leaning Jew and learned that the teacher actively promoted Jewish settlement in the West Bank and lobbied for Israel to annex the land and expel the Arabs? Well, promoting pornography or secretly harboring racist beliefs or campaigning for settlements aren’t illegal, and perhaps the teacher’s views wouldn’t show up in the classroom—perhaps. But surely you could imagine someone wanting out of that contract. 

And what if, further, at a time when not only Israel but Jews were under physical attack all over the world, you simply did not feel safe sending your children to an inadequately secure school, to a school that dismissed your repeated concerns? 

You could surely imagine wanting out of that contract too—and surely you would be reasonable in so wanting.

Andrew Pessin

Perhaps the law doesn’t care. A contract is a contract. Perhaps legally the Rachmuths don’t have a leg to stand on, and they are destined to lose. (Although one law professor I consulted said the law may not be so heartless here. We’ll see more about the Rachmuths’ legal chances at the end.)

But whatever the law thinks, surely there is room for discussion here, morally and philosophically?

Perhaps the law allows the Lerner School to stand its ground. But even so, how should the Lerner School have handled this, morally, philosophically—and even Jewishly?

To be continued.

Andrew Pessin (www.andrewpessin.com) is a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, and the author of several philosophy books for the general reader as well as a novel.

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Posted on February 17, 2016 and filed under Analysis, Opinion, U.S..