Monday, September 08, 2003

Why Can’t Those Who Write Get It Right?

How should the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be taught in Jewish schools? This is a topic that is scarcely discussed although it deserves attention. Is it always necessary to be staunchly pro-Israel and critical of the other side or is there room to present the Palestinian case and to be critical of certain Israeli policies?

These are legitimate questions, even if we believe as I do that there are powerful moral and practical reasons why it’s the job of Jewish education to engender in students a strong and positive identification with Israel. Moral equivalency must be rejected, if only because it has become a rhetorical device for many who engage in Israel-bashing. Besides, the general media are so often hostile to the Jewish State. Why should our schools serve even inadvertently as vehicles for further negativism toward Israel? It remains, though, that teaching about the Middle East is not all that simple and need not always be one-sided. Depending on the grade, the intention of the teacher and the issue that is to be covered, at times it may be appropriate to air viewpoints that depart from unconditional support and avoidance of criticism.

These issues were played out at Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox day school in Los Angeles. What happened there became in early August a mega-story in the Los Angeles Times (LAT). In turn, it was a page 3 piece in this newspaper that presented a sanitized version of what transpired and distorted the extent to which Shalhevet students, including in lower grades, were subjected to anti-Israel messages. It’s the last report that provides the title for this article.

I have been to Shalhevet three or four times as part of an intensive effort to help Jewish schools around the country. While I have reservations that are not at all rooted in its being Modern Orthodox about its educational philosophy and there is much confusion at the school as it attempts to implement the dubious theories of Lawrence Kohlberg about the moral development of children, none of this has anything to do with what I write here.

Compared to the usual Los Angeles Time’s coverage of Israel, the Shalhevet story was about as fair as one can hope for from a newspaper that has published Streicher-like anti-Semitic cartoons. The “hero” of the piece is Alexander Maksik who was then a seventh grade English teacher who had both an abundance of arrogance and a disdain for ordinary curriculum requirements, as he was determined to have his twelve-year-olds read material that was strongly hostile to Israel.

As told in this newspaper, Maksik attempted to show his students “the human side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” by assigning material that “revealed the harsh treatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers.” The LAT story described the performance of a mixed Arab-Israeli acting troupe, apparently invited to Shalhevet by Jerry Friedman, the school’s omni-present and omni-dominant founder. Unlike LAT, the story that was published here did not tell us that in one scene “two male actors, a Jew and a Muslim, pretended that they were urinating. They looked at each other. Aha, one said, so you too are circumcised. We’re both circumcised.” A second scene depicts a budding romance between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman. Another scene shows “sleeping Israeli soldiers arising and begin making plans to kill Palestinians.” Doubtlessly, this is appropriate fare for young students in a Jewish school.

We actually never learn much from either article about what Maksik taught during the two years that he was at Shalhevet. He placed much emphasis on “Habibi,” a novel by a Palestinian writer that in addition to portraying Israeli soldiers as rough bullies includes a young Palestinian girl’s first kiss and her budding romance with a Jewish boy. As he taught the book, Maksik insisted that his students write from the Palestinian point of view. He said that to refuse to do so is to be narrow and close minded. None of this appears in the article that we read here, nor do we get Maksik’s complaint that “the only articles on the school’s bulletin board are about Palestinian suicide bombers…. All the news is about the horrors to Israel. There’s never discussion of any other side.”

It could be that space limitations made it impossible to include much of this. But it’s unbelievable that there was no mention of Maksik’s supremely insensitive and even obscene response when he was asked, “would you have students read ‘Mein Kampf’ at this school?” This humane and caring soul readily said that he would assign Hitler’s odious anti-Jewish manifesto because “there would be no better place to teach it.”

It’s not hard to imagine what our community’s reaction would be if a seventh grade – or any other – public school teacher assigned Mein Kampf. We would be up in arms. (Incidentally, I am one of the very few people I know who has read Mein Kampf.) More importantly, why was this aspect of the story omitted from the sanitized version that was published here? This is inexcusable.

Maksik was not renewed by Shalhevet for a third year. We are told that he is now teaching at the American School in Paris. I am not sure whether Mein Kampf is on his reading list, but I very much doubt that he has the freedom to force his students to read material that is hateful to them.
Charles Liebman and I taught together at Yeshiva University in 1961-62 and we were the same age. Even then, his focus was on the sociology of religion, the field in which he made a major and lasting contribution. After he made aliyah to Israel, although not close our relationship continued over the years and I last saw him in Moscow this past June. He was a good person and an eminent scholar and when he passed away last week our community lost someone of true merit.