Swastika Incident Reverberating At Fieldston
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Swastika Incident Reverberating At Fieldston

Parents at elite Riverdale school say swastika-as-peace symbol assembly is part of a long pattern of slights against Jews.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

When the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, an elite private school on a leafy campus in Riverdale, embarked last year on an experiment to promote racial pride and inter-racial understanding among its diverse group of third- through fifth-graders, parents and alumni were vehemently split.

While proponents viewed the program as being on the leading edge of tolerance education, others saw it as a well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided effort that would only deepen the racial divide.

This week, as the school is dealing with the fallout from its response to a swastika incident, controversy has sprung up again, with parents discussing the issue in parking lots and ball field bleachers, and alumni going “ballistic” on Facebook, according to one alum.

Parents, middle school teachers and alumni of ECFS, at least one of whom is a prominent “second generation” Holocaust spokesman, have been firing off letters and emails to school officials asking why the administration wasn’t treating what they see as a clear case of anti-Semitism the same way it has addressed other acts of bigotry.

“If someone had written the N-word or put a Confederate flag on the wall, I think there would have been a stronger reaction,” said middle school parent Ben Hort, suggesting the administration would have held a school-wide assembly about it and sent an email to parents asking them to discuss the incident at home.

“For whatever reason, this administration seems less attuned to Jewish issues,” he said.

In this case, the school gave a 15-minute presentation to just one grade that focused on the swastika’s peaceful meanings in other cultures. After an article ran in the New York Post that quoted parents criticizing the school’s response, Head of School Damian Fernandez sent parents and alumni a short letter defending the presentation, which he said, “made clear that the swastika should not appear anywhere at ECFS, in any context,” and articulating what parents say the assembly didn’t, that “a swastika is hate speech and, as such, its depiction will not be tolerated in our school.”

After being deluged with emails from alumni and parents who said this response didn’t go far enough, last week the administration did an about-face, sending a second letter outlining plans to work with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance in Manhattan to create in-depth, ongoing Holocaust education programs at the middle school.

The administration, which is now working with a PR firm, declined to respond to a detailed list of questions from The Jewish Week on both the swastika controversy and the racial understanding program, referring reporters instead to its second letter.

But that letter, despite the turnaround it represented, is not likely to quell all the bad feelings.

'Willful Disregard'

While criticism of the focus of the assembly has come from multiple camps, a contingent of Jewish parents say what they see as a bungled response is not a one-off situation. Rather, they contend that it is part of a decades-long pattern of, at best, an unconscious insensitivity towards the concerns of Jewish families, and, at worst, a willful disregard for them.

Several parents pointed to what they considered much stronger responses to other allegedly bigoted acts, including Ebola jokes last fall and the discovery of lists ranking seventh-grade girls “in terms of their attractiveness.” In both instances the school had much longer assemblies and sent long emails to parents urging them to discuss the incidents at home.

When the swastikas began popping up — including in the artwork of a student who, the administration said, didn’t know the symbol was associated with the Nazis because it symbolized "peace and well-being" in his culture — the middle school principal, Kevin Jacobson, took a different tack, according to a letter purportedly signed by 19 middle-school teachers that was posted on the alumni Facebook page.

The teachers said that when they asked the principal to hold an educational assembly in response to the incident, the principal was hesitant, saying that as far as he knew, “only teachers” were upset about the swastikas.

The following week he approved the brief presentation for the sixth grade. Of the 10 bullet points shown to the students at the meeting, only three were about Nazism, the teachers said. Only one mentioned Jews, noting that the symbol was used “to promote hate and violence” against them and others. The presentation didn’t reference the Holocaust, or note that the Nazis murdered “a third of the world’s Jews, along with another five million people,” the letter said.

After the Post article appeared, the administration was “overwhelmed” with alumni emails, a parent told The Jewish Week.

“Admittedly, I was at Fieldston five decades ago,” wrote Menachem Rosensaft, the son of two Holocaust survivors who was born in the Bergen-Belson displaced persons camp and who frequently comments on the concerns of the children of Holocaust survivors.

“I am certain that the school has changed, but I do not want to believe that it has changed to such an extent that the students there can be told (a) that the swastika has predominantly positive connotations, and (b) that it can or should be considered objectively, as it were. … How, then, can any teacher or administrator at Fieldston talk about the swastika to students without stating categorically that it is the symbol of the perpetration of the biggest genocide in history, and that it remains the symbol of contemporary neo-Nazi movements.”

This last point shocked parents across the multicultural spectrum. How could the school ignore the swastika’s meaning as an emblem of hatred against not only Jews, but also people from immigrant, LGBT, black, Latino and other minority groups, one parent of color told The Jewish Week, referring to white supremacists who often make use of the symbol.

'Like Chicken Pox'

While the letter from the administration that followed the Post article outlined the new education programs, it also maintained that the only swastika that appeared in the school was the one incorporated into the artwork.

While parents and alumni were pleased with the new partnership, they were mystified by the administration’s continued assertion that only one swastika was confirmed.

“I don’t understand why they’re pretending it didn’t happen,” said Hort, whose son told The Jewish Week that he saw multiple swastikas drawn on a piece of paper left out in the art room. And, Hort said, at parent-teacher conferences last week, a teacher confirmed that he knew of multiple sightings of swastikas.

“He said it was like 'chicken pox.' They were reasonably small but they kept cropping up,” Hort said.

A teacher confirmed to another parent that a student reported an additional sighting: a swastika in a girls' bathroom stall. The teacher said she reported it to the administration but when school officials sent someone to investigate nothing was found, the parent said.

'Visibly Minority'

The irony of the dustup about race and anti-Semitism at Fieldston is that the school has a rich Jewish background. Founded in 1878 by Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi, to serve Jews and other minorities who were discriminated against at other private schools, Fieldston became a haven for secular Jews and a stronghold of liberal values where students were taught to pursue social justice and racial equality.

Over the decades, the pre-K-12 institution has added an increasing number of non-white students to its roster of 1,700 students spread throughout its three Riverdale schools (Lower, Middle and Upper) and its Upper West Side pre-K-5 school.

There is no public information on the number of Jewish students currently at the school, but parents interviewed by The Jewish Week estimated that today, roughly a third of the students in the lower and middle divisions are Jewish. However that percentage is likely to drop significantly over the next decade as the school works towards its goal of increasing ECFS' percentage of students who, as one parent put it, are "visibly minority."

Under the “Diversity” heading on its admissions fact sheet, the school says that about 35 percent of its student body and 15 percent of its faculty and staff are people of color. It does not note any other measures of diversity, such the percentage of students with disabilities, or from specific religious or ethnic backgronds, or who come from households that include LGBT or first-generation immigrant members. Nor does the fact sheet note socioeconomic status, although under the "Financial Aid" heading it notes that about 22 percent of families get some form of monetary assistance.

“For a long time the school has been viewing diversity as simply skin color,” said one parent. “But there is so much more than skin color, and they really need to get their act together on that.”

'Little Slights'

Several alumni noted that when they attended the school, there was a significant amount of Holocaust education, including a “remembrance day” during which Holocaust survivors spoke.

“These [programs] don’t exist anymore, which means there had been a conscious decision to take them out of the curriculum,” said one parent, who, like all the parents who spoke to The Jewish Week except for Hort, asked to remain anonymous because they feared that voicing criticism might be held against their children.

In addition to the response to the swastikas, several Jewish parents pointed to the affinity group program (now called Conversations on Race), which they said negated their children’s Jewish identity by instructing them to check either the “white” or the “not sure” box. (The other boxes kids could check were: “African-American/black,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “Latina/o” and “multi-racial.”) After parents from a wide range of racial and ethnic identities complained that telling students to mark “not sure” when they knew exactly who they were was also damaging, the administration changed that group’s name to “general discussion.”

At the crux of the disagreement about affinity groups, several parents said, is that the school’s administration considers a “minority” to be a group that faces discrimination and economic disadvantage, and sees New York-area Jews as part of the privileged group.

But there are plenty of Latino students who are white, and plenty from affluent households, they countered.

When their argument didn’t have an effect, a few parents who were members of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, discussed their concerns with the shul’s education director, Mason Voit. He put together an email to the administration explaining why American Jews had a particular Jewish identity and didn’t consider themselves white — to no avail.

“I would have liked the school to be able to hear the concerns of the parents,” Voit said. “There are really important characteristics of being white that the Jewish students just don’t share, but I think there was an inability of the school to see the Jewish identity of the kids as being anything other than a religious identity.”

Voit and parents said the current controversies are not the only examples of what they see as "microagressions" toward Jewish students.

Voit pointed to an incident 11 years ago, in which he and more than 100 protestors, including nearly a dozen rabbis, held a silent rally at the school regarding a panel discussion that included several Palestinian activists who advocate abolishing Israel, and no pro-Israel panelists.

Parents also noted an incident in October when a student was reading aloud Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” the teacher didn’t discuss a line that many consider to be anti-Semitic.

“I think the kids should read Oscar Wilde,” one parent said, despite the fact that the writer was an unapologetic anti-Semite. “But when you read a story that has a little anti-Semitic dig in it, when it’s read aloud in class and the teacher doesn’t stop and discuss the line,” she said, that’s a real problem.

They also said that while hate crimes against other minorities that make headlines — such as arson attempts at black churches in the South — are regularly discussed at the school, similar crimes against Jews — the fires set to seven Jewish homes in Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens last month — are not. If you only got your news from inside the school, one parent said, you wouldn't know that anti-Semitism exists.

All the Jewish parents interviewed stressed that they do not belive anyone on the administration is anti-Semitic or that their children feel uncomfortable on campus. Hort's son agreed, telling The Jewish Week that when he and his friends saw the swastikas in the art room they "didn't think anything of it."

Voit said that he's had multiple discussions with synagogue parents on the issue, and he agreed that the atmosphere at Fieldston is not anti-Semitic.

"There are organizations that are hostile to Jews; I don't think Fieldston is among them. But it sounds like there are some areas where they are sort of tone-deaf," he said, expaining that the issue is not with what administrators and teachers do, but what they don't.

"I think the omissions are extremely intentional," he said. "They're active omissions."

Another parent put it this way: “The school talks about microaggressions against children of color, and what’s ironic about it is that I feel that the school is perpetrating microaggressions against Jewish students."

"There are these little slights all the time," she continued. "If it had been happening to students of color, it would be on the administration’s radar.”

But despite the work to be done, parents and alumni who spoke to The Jewish Week said they are encouraged by the administration’s decision to institute Holocaust education programs at the Middle School.

“The school is listening,” one parent said. “It is changing.”

amyclark@jewishweek.org

Update: This story was updated on Dec. 16 with additional information, including comments from Hort's son, who spoke to The Jewish Week after the original story went to press. In addition, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how The Jewish Week learned that a student reported finding a swastika in a bathroom stall. The information came from a parent who learned of it from a teacher. No teachers spoke to The Jewish Week.

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