When, about 10 years ago, I headed a pro-Israel organization that educated and trained high school and college students, I heard a frequent refrain from Jewish college students, particularly those who had gone to Jewish day schools, that they were lied to by the Jewish community about Israel. They were presented with the “Disneyland” version of the Jewish state, a magical kingdom that could do no wrong. Once these students got to college and heard alternative views, they felt duped. Some joined protest groups like “IfNotNow.”
Most Jewish day schools became more nuanced over time and started teaching about varied Zionist thinkers, competing narratives and diverse perspectives. But the damage had already been done.
You would think that Jewish day schools would have learned their lesson not to instill dogma in their students. Indeed, many pride themselves on imparting critical thinking skills. But I’m hearing that numerous Jewish day schools, like so many other educational institutions, teach a singular perspective on social issues. They have been swept up by “The Great Awokening,” teaching about race and racism with all the nuance of my Zionist youth director’s enthusiastic endorsement of Menachem Begin’s peace policies. Like many public and private schools, they’ve embraced Critical Race Theory (CRT) not as one of several theoretical lenses through which to see the world, but as the one true way.
CRT is a framework that claims racial oppression is embedded in the very structures of American society and is often invisible to the dominant class. CRT proponents generally regard America as a white-supremacist society and racism as the only legitimate explanation for the disparity among groups. CRT is, of course, a perfectly valid way of analyzing social issues. A hallmark of applied CRT, however, is its insistence on its own unquestioned, inviolable truth. And in the wake of the George Floyd killing by police last year in Minneapolis, many educators have acceded to the demand for unconditional acceptance.
The Heschel School, for example, one of the nation’s premier pluralistic Jewish day schools in New York City, seems to embrace a CRT framework. “We will learn from all of our attempts to strengthen an anti-racist stance in our curriculum and our community and, true to Rabbi Heschel’s teachings, to embrace the imperative to take responsibility for systemic racism and injustice, as well as our roles in perpetuating these systems of inequality,” say school administrators.
I do not question the school’s values. Jewish day schools should teach Jewish kids to be respectful and tolerant, to oppose racism and prejudice, and to work for a fair and just society. But how they do it matters. The “anti-racist” language suggests that the school is viewing these values through the prism of Ibrahim X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, a staple of modern CRT. Whether, as the school asserts, there is “systemic racism” in America, how much systemic racism exists and where it manifests are matters of opinion, not an expression of values. These are questions that should be discussed and debated, not answers that should be promulgated and instilled. How would teachers regard a student who argues that systemic racism is overstated? Would they treat the student’s arguments as legitimate inquiry or lecture him or her for heresy? Is Heschel teaching about systemic racism as truths or theories? The language they use suggests the former.
The mission of Jewish day schools should be to teach students how to think, not what to think. I am sure that Heschel and other day schools see themselves as doing just that. But the school’s anti-racism statement suggests otherwise, at least in the domain of the most important social issue of our time.
How many Jewish day schools’ anti-racism curricula examine the various assumptions of CRT and provide competing theoretical approaches, such as the role of economics, culture and past oppression in explaining disparities?
How many schools that assign students to read How to be an Antiracist also assign them reading from a black heterodox thinker such as John McWhorter? I’ll be pleasantly surprised if any do. Books like How to be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility are often treated more like holy texts than books.
Is this really the only way Jewish day schools can teach about racial equality? The obvious answer is no.
New Trier Township High School, a magnet school in the Chicago area, makes its commitment to an educationally diverse approach very clear. It states unequivocally that “a fundamental aspect of our mission is to develop critical thinkers who can navigate a complex world through civil discourse, respectful inquiry, engaged listening and open consideration of multiple perspectives … the open exchange of ideas lies at the core of a democratic society in which individuals are accountable for their actions and treat one another with dignity, compassion and respect.”
Jewish day schools should be no less dedicated to critical thinking and viewpoint diversity. Every Jewish day-school parent should insist that their children are given a full range of perspectives. Every day-school principal should articulate the value of viewpoint diversity made explicit in the Trier school statement. Every day, school teacher should teach multiple points of view—not just on Israel and Zionism, but on race and racism, gender and sexuality.
In today’s polarized environment, rife with fake news and manipulation, if ever there was a time to double down on teaching critical thinking skills free of dogma, now is it.
David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.