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DEI finds a foothold in Jewish schools

Jewish schools should focus on raising up strong Jews, not committed liberals.

A stack of books. Photo: jakkaje879/Shutterstock
A stack of books. Photo: jakkaje879/Shutterstock
Irit Tratt
Irit Tratt
Irit Tratt is a pro-Israel advocate residing in New York.

In his 2009 book Why Are Jews Liberals?, conservative intellectual Norman Podhoretz examined American Jewry’s consistent fidelity to liberal politics. While cultural and historical developments influence Jewish Americans’ refusal to abandon an ideology antithetical to their interests, Podhoretz also notes the conflation of “Jewish values” like tzedakah with progressive political trends.

Moreover, Podhoretz asserts that when the “Torah of contemporary liberalism conflicts with the Torah of Judaism, it is the Torah of liberalism that prevails and the Torah of Judaism that must give way.”

Why Are Jews Liberals? accurately describes the mindset of many American Jews, who overwhelmingly identify as Democrats despite the party’s waning support for Israel and coddling of antisemites. However, Jewish day schools are emerging as the next battleground. Jewish educators are sidelining Jewish literacy and reorienting instruction towards Podhoretz’s “Torah of liberalism.”

Those controlling these educational institutions are following in the footsteps of U.S. Jewish organizations, which in a desperate attempt to embrace leftist intersectional trends, are pushing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming.

Jewish schools’ first damaging collaboration with the ideological left was in 2018. Following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Jewish students around the country participated in a nationwide school walkout for gun control. The event was spearheaded by an offshoot of the Women’s March, which at the time was co-chaired by Tamika Mallory, an admirer of antisemitic preacher Louis Farrakhan.

The institutions that worked with antisemites in the name of social justice were not solely non-Orthodox schools, which underscores the strength of Jewish liberalism. Five years later, what began as a 17-minute protest has deteriorated into widespread and systemic pedagogy. Despite DEI platforms fomenting antisemitism through critical race theory’s binary framework of oppressor vs. victim, a rising number of Jewish schools are adopting DEI mission statements.

In recent years, academic institutions like Solomon Schechter day schools are dissociating from denominational affiliations and operate as pluralistic establishments. Since Jewish pluralism involves partnerships with Jews of all backgrounds, the principles of “diversity and inclusion” embedded in DEI ideology are applied at these schools.

Increasingly, social justice causes are cloaked in Jewish virtue by distorting values like elu v’elu (openness) and v’ahavta l’rei-akha (loving your neighbor). At one Jewish high school in California, propagating equity and social justice involves encouraging educators to participate in a conference on white privilege. Jewish schools are also adopting gender-neutral bathrooms and accommodating a range of pronouns.

It is absurd for educators to advance ideas central to the intersectional agenda while expecting discourse on Israel to remain insulated from them. A predictable and disturbing trend emerging from Jewish schools’ dabbling in DEI is the reorienting of Israel education to comport with today’s liberal narrative.

Rodeph Sholom, a Reform Jewish school in New York City, recently concluded an “audit” of its Israel curriculum. Going forward, the school will integrate Israel education with its diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice (DEISJ) mission, guaranteeing that its students will learn about Israel via the intersectional myths espoused by Israel’s detractors.

Given the onslaught of anti-Israel hostility students face once entering university, Jewish schools’ reinforcement of leftist paradigms surrounding Israel highlights the perils associated with rebranding Israel instruction.

Last month, Nishma Research released a study on the American Jewish community. The results confirm suspicions that liberalism is finding its footing in the Modern Orthodox movement. The survey found Modern Orthodoxy’s liberal wing is concerned about Israel’s new right-leaning government by a 6-1 margin, while almost 30% of the denomination’s primarily right-leaning adherents expressed pessimism about the denomination’s future.

Several years ago, Israel educators at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox school in Riverdale, New York, revealed plans to teach about Israel with “nuance.” To its credit, the school was among the few that chose not to participate in the 2018 student walkout due to the walkout’s ties to the Women’s March. Yet during a mock planning meeting designed to introduce guests to the school’s Israel curriculum, educators punctuated their discussion with language that included terms like “Jewish power” and “Nakba.” Both terms enjoy broad appeal among DEI proponents and antisemites.

The planned curriculum extended beyond assessing the Jewish homeland through an imperfect prism. While well-intentioned, the outsize focus on “nuance” was likely a factor in greenlighting New York’s anti-Israel Democratic congressman Jamaal Bowman’s virtual address to SAR students two years ago. In keeping with Podhoretz’s assertion, an exit poll taken during the 2020 primary race found Bowman winning over former pro-Israel Democratic congressman Eliot Engel by a 61-39 margin at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale polling location.

To their good fortune, Orthodox voters, whom one political strategist told the Jewish Insider “vote Democratic up and down the ballot,” no longer have to reconcile their liberal political sensibilities with Jewish interests. Pro-Israel congressman Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) now represents portions of Bowman’s district due to redistricting.

Jewish liberals’ secular impulse renders Jewish schools susceptible to the toxic progressivism sweeping our nation’s public education system. With DEI hijacking far too many classrooms, Jewish schools must focus on raising up strong Jews rather than cultivating committed liberals.

Irit Tratt is a pro-Israel advocate residing in New York.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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