A new breed of Israel divide: a family vs. a school, Jewish community (Part 2)

 

 

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

By Andrew Pessin/JNS.org

(Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.)

In the first part of this series, we described the developing legal drama between the Rachmuth family and the Lerner School of Durham, N.C., the very basic of facts of which are also reported here. In a sentence, the Lerner School is suing the Rachmuths for reneging on their tuition contract, while the Rachmuths claim the school was taking an anti-Israel turn that was inconsistent with their principles. We left off noting that perhaps the law will declare that the Rachmuths must pay the money. But even so, we asked, how should the Lerner School have handled this, morally, philosophically—even Jewishly?

As we noted in Part 1, the school, like all such schools, is in a nearly impossible position, having to satisfy the competing demands of the fractious Jews. Especially where they are located, they must make far-left Jews as comfortable as possible, as they must make far-right Jews comfortable as well. But what you have here, as far as I can see, is a family in a similarly difficult position. They signed that contract. They were desperate to give their children a Jewish education, and this was the only suitable Jewish day school in the area. They had their concerns about the school, but beggars can’t be choosers. They signed that contract with some discomfort but then perceived that the school seemed to be changing direction, diluting its Jewish character, that its personnel included people they did not want teaching their children, that the school refused to meet its concerns about safety, that the school would not even support Israel during the Gaza war and instead defended a teacher who condemned Israel during the war.

It seems hard to deny that the Rachmuths’ concerns were serious and legitimate, and deserved to be treated as such. 

Why wouldn’t you just…let them go?

That is all they wanted. They had, and have, no interest in bashing the school (though some in the community see things differently on this point). The school was not for them, and they just wanted to leave. In several emails they requested respectfully and cordially to be released from their contract. “We want to end this relationship peacefully and quickly,” they wrote to Head of School Allison Oakes on July 28, 2014. Nor were they alone in asking for this: at least two others, a local lawyer and a local rabbi, went in on the Rachmuths’ behalf to urge the school to let them go.

But this was not to be.

Oakes informed me that the school’s decision not to let them go peacefully and quickly was a business decision. Schools require advance commitments, and simply cannot function if parents renege on those commitments. 

But a private memo I obtained suggests something else might be going on here as well. Tal Wittle, president of the Lerner School’s board, remarks in August 2014, “Part of me…wants to say [to the Rachmuths] fine, keep your money because our school doesn’t need such bigotry anywhere near it. But, one, that sends the message that they are in the right, and two, we run a business.” 

When I asked Sloan Rachmuth to clarify what was meant by “such bigotry,” she said she believed it was her repeated complaints about what was going on in the school, including her characterizations of individuals who support BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) and work with groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace as anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic. 

Another memo I obtained, written from Wittle to Oakes on Aug. 23, 2014, seems to support Rachmuth’s interpretation. Wittle dismisses the Rachmuths’ concerns about the school and repeatedly accuses Sloan, in raising the criticisms summarized above, of acting in ways that conflict with the school’s core values. Indeed, Wittle explicitly notes that the classroom teacher’s posting photos of herself holding signs condemning Israel’s “oppression” and supporting BDS is counter neither to the school’s mission nor core values: “I’m sure that to some the photo of [the teacher] holding the sign ‘against oppression #dropG4S’ is disturbing, but it is not counter to our mission or core values.” She goes on to add that Rachmuth’s objection to the teacher’s behavior is “disrespectful” and therefore counter to another of the school’s values, “respect for differences.”

So let’s revisit the question: Why not just let the Rachmuths go?

Was it a business decision? Perhaps. But what a terrible business decision, in this case. The Rachmuths made it abundantly clear from the start that they had legitimate concerns about the school, that they felt misled by it, and they would not pay. The school has now spent 18 months and who knows how much money in legal pursuit of that withheld $20,000. I’m not a businessperson, but I’m pretty sure that when confronted with the choice of giving up on $20,000 or spending far more than $20,000 to recover that money, the business choice is clear. This doesn’t even begin to factor in the cost of negative publicity, just now hitting the school in full force.

The argument that it was important to sue to set a precedent, suggested to me by Oakes and other school supporters, is hardly more compelling. How many people seek to leave the school at the last minute because of ideological and safety concerns like those the Rachmuths have? If this were common, then clearly the school needs to rethink its practices. But if such cases are rare, then the precedent is empty. If anything, the precedent the school has set is that if you have any doubts about the school, you better not enroll—lest they come after you too. 

To mind it is such a poor business decision that, to give them any credit, we can only assume that it was more than just a business decision.

Those two memos from Wittle make one wonder. Those memos defended the teacher, Israeli expat and draft dodger Tal Matalon, and condemned the Rachmuths for their opposition to Matalon (and other matters). They were concerned that if the school did not sue, the message would be sent that the Rachmuths were “in the right.” 

But right about what? 

The Rachmuths pretty clearly are right about most of their allegations. The activities of the school development director and Jews for a Just Peace activist, Rachel Bearman, and Matalon are fully documented, and indeed, admirably, as people of conviction, neither seemed interested in concealing those activities because they are presumably proud of them. The Rachmuths were right about the change of admissions policy (which in fact occurred after they signed the contract, and which the school admitted amounted to a breach on their part). No one denies the teacher said that, “Maps of Israel hurt some people’s feelings” (and anyway, they do!). The school has rebranded itself, into the Lerner School. Apparently there is some dispute or miscommunication about the precise issue with the maps being taken down, but in any case there were changes going on in the school with respect to their Israel maps.

Further, as one former member of the school’s personnel told me, the school knew the Rachmuths were right in their concerns about Matalon in particular. School officials were aware they had made a mistake in hiring her in the first place without having investigated her political background adequately; but fearing a lawsuit for wrongful termination, they worked hard to mitigate that mistake by repeatedly reminding Matalon to keep her opinions to herself and by regularly monitoring her, to the point of minimizing any time she had alone with the students. While these activities allowed the school to argue against the Rachmuths that there was no evidence that Matalon broke any rules in the classroom, they simultaneously confirm that even the school agreed that the Rachmuths had something to be concerned about.   

So what is left here, for the Rachmuths to be seen as “right” about?

Could it be the deeper issues here? The Rachmuths believe that a Jewish education requires robust support of Israel, support which is inconsistent with the practices of the Lerner School circa 2013-14 and some of its key personnel. (We haven’t even mentioned the school’s board member who proudly promotes his wife’s anti-Israel scholarship on his social media!) If the school shares that belief, as their attempts to contain Matalon’s behavior suggests, then perhaps they should have been more sympathetic to the Rachmuths request to leave. But then again, perhaps the school does not share the Rachmuths’ belief. Needing to cater to a diverse population, it cannot refuse to hire or admit those who regularly condemn Israel, as long as they keep their personal activities and beliefs to themselves.

Fine.

But the school’s own core values, as we saw, require it at least to show respect to the diversity of opinions, to “respect differences,” to “treat each other with respect and caring.” (I quote from Wittle’s Aug. 23, 2014 memo here.) But rather than use these points to condemn the Rachmuths for raising their concerns about the direction of the school, they might have been better applied to respecting the Rachmuths’ concerns themselves

This does not mean the school has to agree with those concerns, or the Rachmuths’ values or opinions. As a private institution it can make decisions about its curriculum and personnel and core values however it chooses, as long as it is open about them. But if it truly aims to embrace and respect the diversity of Jewish opinion, not just to the left but also to the right, then it could not fail to recognize at least the legitimacy of the Rachmuths’ concerns, even if it disagrees with them. And if you respect that legitimacy, it seems to me, then the choice of action is clear.

You let them leave the school.

If the choice to pursue litigation was a purely business one, then it is a dreadful one that has backfired badly. 

So was it, perhaps, ideological? They were opposed to the Rachmuths’ “bigotry,” apparently referring, thereby, to the Rachmuths’ uncompromising stance that a solid Jewish education requires instilling a solid support for Israel, support which is inconsistent with embracing those who openly campaign against Israel, who partner with anti-Semites, and who themselves, therefore, in the eyes of some, may reasonably be called anti-Semites—whether they are Jewish or not. 

One can admire a Bearman, and a Matalon, even if one disagrees with them. They stand up for their beliefs, they protest against what they see as wrong, and they are not ashamed to do so. All those are real virtues, even if you disagree with their values. The Lerner School perhaps rightly stood up for those individuals, who are free to pursue their beliefs and activism in their personal life as they see fit. But the school somehow failed to notice that the Rachmuths were doing precisely the same thing. It became increasingly clear that their values and the school’s values were grossly misaligned. To show respect for the Rachmuths’ values—surely legitimate Jewish values, even if you disagree with them—would entail that you do the decent thing.

Let them leave the school.

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Instead, the school has pursued them legally for 18 months, at great expense both to itself and to the Rachmuths. The school, deeply embedded within and supported by the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, has significant resources at its disposal, which it could be devoting toward improving its educational program or increasing the financial aid it offers. Instead it seems to be employing them in its legal battle against the Rachmuths. 

The school is of course not alone in making a poor business decision. The Rachmuths have now incurred somewhere in the region of $30,000 in legal expenses, in order to avoid paying that $20,000. This in addition to the stress from being the target of a lawsuit for 18 months, not to mention from being ostracized by the majority of their community, who have sided with the school and the Federation. The Rachmuths have been badly damaged by the whole affair, suffering many sleepless nights.

But of course theirs is not a business decision. The Rachmuths are not, never were, in this for the money. They chose to pay more to home-school their children than they would have paid at Lerner. Their decision not to pay, and to resist the litigation, is based strictly on their values and principles, which they continue to defend at great cost to themselves. A Jewish identity, for them, requires a connection to, a love for, and great support of the State of Israel. If they capitulate, they feel, it won’t be long before there will be openly “anti-Israel Jewish schools” dotting the American map. 

Meanwhile, the Lerner School is rallying the resources of the entire community to go after their measly $20,000 because it refuses to send the message that the Rachmuths “are right”—about those principles, it seems.

Are the Rachmuths so invested in defending their principles that they’ll end up ruining themselves? Perhaps. Oakes informed me that the school has reached out repeatedly to the family to find an agreement and settle out of court, offers the family has rebuffed. The Rachmuths have declined those invitations even to meet with the school because they feel there is nothing to talk about: feeling duped by the school, sticking to their principles, there was no amount they were willing to pay. As Guy Rachmuth explained, “It is someone’s right not to want to pay money that makes its way into anti-Israel people's hands (in terms of salary, etc.). They cannot force people to be part of a community that stands behind pro-BDS people (which is against our conscience) or pay $20,000. It is a fundamental question of morals and ethics. I think it would be similar if an African-American family discovered that a school teacher was privately a white supremacist. Would that be okay, as long as the teacher didn’t express his views in the classroom??? BDS is anti-Semitic to us, and those who support it promote anti-Semitism, and we don’t want our children in that environment.”

Is this destined to be a losing legal battle for the Rachmuths? You sign a contract, you owe the money, period? Perhaps. And it surely will be, if they run out of money and lose the ability to defend themselves from what must feel like the Goliath mob of their entire community. In fact, rumors have reached my ears from three distinct sources that members of the community, rallying in defense of the Lerner School, are discussing boycotting the Rachmuths’ personal business—actually going after their livelihood.

If that should come to pass, the irony would be almost too painful to bear. A family withdrawing from a school in protest of those who support the boycott against Israel—subsequently being boycotted by those who support the school. (Oakes and one other person who heard the same rumor were equally aghast, and assured me that their community would never do any such thing.)

But then again perhaps all is not lost. That they seem to be at least morally and philosophically justified may in the end give them a legal leg to stand on after all. After 18 months of pleading to just be left alone, the family has moved forward from its original answer to the school’s lawsuit toward formally countersuing the school for fraud, claiming, among other things, that the school’s behaviors above, that the kinds of things to which they had objected, were in fact inconsistent with the school’s proclaimed Jewish mission and values. 

It’s far too soon to judge the merits of this countersuit, but it clearly gets at the deepest, most divisive questions of our time. Just what does it mean to be a Jew, and what role does one’s identification and support of Israel play in being a Jew?

If this goes forward then we fractious Jews will be slinging an awful lot of opinions about this in the months and years ahead. When these discussions get underway, it’s hard to imagine that our divided house—and schools, and communities—already bickering in a manner comparable to the Second Temple era, will be able to avert falling apart altogether. And indeed, one can only see this as a bonanza for those who are the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people—to watch Jews fighting among themselves, in particular over what role support of Israel should play in Jewish education. 

If this dispute, already prolonged beyond reasonable by any measure, could only be ended swiftly, it would be better for all of us.

Andrew Pessin

So perhaps the Lerner School can do something not for the Rachmuths, but for the diverse Jewish community it repeatedly insists it seeks to embrace. The battle ahead, about to bring up the most difficult and divisive questions a diaspora community could face, really could shatter whatever unity the contemporary American Jewish community strains to have. To avoid this, for the sake of perhaps one of the most profound Jewish values, for the sake of the Jewish community itself, despite its divisions, there is one thing this school might do.

Let these people go.

It is, in my humble opinion, the Jewish thing to do.

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 19, 2016 and filed under Analysis, Opinion, U.S..