Does a school trip to Israel that offers its students extensive exposure to Palestinian Arabs and limited time with Jews constitute a valid educational experience?
Some parents of Jewish students at the Friends Seminary, a Quaker-affiliated K-12 institution in Manhattan, think not.
The school — its enrollment is about one-third Jewish — sponsored a five-day visit to Israel this week that it described as “cultural” rather than political in nature. It included home hospitality each night with Palestinian families in Ramallah whose children attend that city’s Friends School, an assignment to compile oral histories of those families, a chaperone from the school’s history department who is accused of presenting a one-sided anti-Israel version of Middle East events in his classes, and a meeting the last day with officials at the American Jewish Committee.
“The trip did not offer a balance” of the Arab and Israeli points of view, said the parent of a Jewish high school student at Friends. Despite the requests of several parents, the school “did not change the itinerary,” he said. “There are a number of Jewish parents who expressed concern [to the school] about this issue.”
Following the recent performance at the school of a Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli-born musician who describes himself as a “proud self-hating Jew” and outspoken critic of Israel, the parent said he is “concerned about bullying.” He asked that his name not be used here because his pro-Israel child still attends the school.
His child was not among some 17 students on the trip, all of whom study Arabic at the school, the parent said. Several Jewish students were part of the delegation.
Friends Seminary officials did not respond to several requests from The Jewish Week to comment on this issue.
Rabbi Ed Rettig, acting director of the AJC’s Israel office, told The Jewish Week that he met the Friends Seminary group in their Jerusalem hotel. “We had a good meeting,” he said. “They did a lot of hard thinking” about what they had observed during their previous time in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“The atmosphere in the school … is actively against Israel,” says Kenneth Jacobson, the Anti-Defamation League’s deputy national director. “We haven’t heard anything to the contrary.”
The ADL was earlier in contact with Friends Seminary administrators about the appearance of Atzmon, a jazz saxophonist who left Israel in 1994 and lives in London. While he reportedly did not discuss Middle East politics during his school visit, his being invited gives the appearance of an “implicit endorsement” of his political views, the parent said.
In a commentary published this week in The Jerusalem Post, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman wrote, “Because of the intensely personal nature of the [students’] home visits in the West Bank, which will expose the group only to a Palestinian perspective, these visits should be balanced by similar experiences with Israelis within Israel.
“What seems to be happening … at Friends is a familiar and disturbing phenomenon,” Foxman wrote. “An institution gets so comfortable presenting a distorted anti-Israel version of historical and current events in the Middle East that they do not or will not recognize how easily what seems like criticisms of Israel can veer into anti-Semitism.”
“It’s very painful,” said the parent, “to be concerned that [a pro-Israel child] could be subjected to uncomfortable situations when I send him to school every day.”