Jewish families dismayed prep school won’t denounce student display as antisemitic
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
When the Sinai Scholars program established a Judaic studies track at The Miami Valley School in 2009, a goal of its founders was to prepare Jewish high school students to defend Judaism and Israel against negative attacks when they would go to college.
But in May, Jewish high schoolers at the private, nonsectarian prep school in Washington Township experienced a taste of these negative attacks on their own campus.
At a student-led World Affair program during the school day, Friday, May 10, a high school senior’s Palestine table featured a series of maps on a poster indicating that all land in the state of Israel was stolen from Palestinians.
Next to the heading “Land Theft,” the student wrote, “Not only is the land stolen from Palestinians…so is their cultures and identity…By stealing from various Arab countries, Israel is confirming what it is: an outsider with no respect for cultural boundaries and a start-up colonial nation with aspirations to imperial grandeur, rather than what it so desperately wants to be seen as: local.”
A second poster showed a map of Palestine covering the area including the modern state of Israel, and a section about Jewish anti-Zionists, “Being Jewish is not the same as being Zionist!”
Although the school has criticized the “political” nature of the display, indicating the posters did not “share the spirit of the event, which was meant to celebrate cultures from around the world,” Jewish students and their parents — along with clergy and donors who lead the Sinai program — share frustration that the school has not denounced the display as antisemitic.
Jewish students in the high school, including those in the Sinai program, saw the Palestinian display from the Israel booth they had put together for the event.
“We knew it was going to happen, but to see it in person was most surprising, and to really see the hate and just the antisemitism that was being displayed was just mind-boggling and it was really difficult,” said Devorah Schwartz, a sophomore at the time.
Schwartz recalled there was a Palestine booth at last year’s World Affair too but no one did anything about it.
“I think it was because Rabbi E came because we were supposed to have a Sinai lunch that day,” Schwartz said. “But he decided he just wanted to come and check out our booth. He saw it (the Palestine display) and said, ‘That’s not OK.’”
“Rabbi E,” Rabbi Elchonon Chaikin, is the teen and young adult program director for Chabad of Greater Dayton; with his wife, Mussie, he administers the Sinai Sunday program and brings kosher lunch for the Sinai students at Miami Valley nearly every week.
“The students were very upset,” Chaikin said. “I could tell that this is something that bothered them not just necessarily as a political issue. They felt very insecure or very unsafe in that environment. I think it led them to question their whole Jewish identity.”
Schwartz said the land theft display tried “to make us look evil and like we’re trying to cover up who we really are.”
She added that other than taking photos of the Palestine booth with her phone, students at the Israel booth didn’t approach the students at the Palestine display.
“We were all kind of scared,” Schwartz said, “because we were nervous that if we were to walk over and even just look at it, the student would lash out at us. There was no direct quarrel or anything like that.”
Nine of the 11 Sinai students in the high school met with Head of School Elizabeth F. Cleary the following Monday — the next school day — along with the upper school’s director, Blair Munhofen.
“We all voiced that we were scared and we were confused at how something like this could happen,” Schwartz said. “And we felt like, in a safe space like our school is supposed to be, we did not feel safe. We didn’t feel welcomed. Especially on a day where we were all about celebrating our values and the things that make us different.”
Cleary declined several requests from The Observer to be interviewed in person or by phone for this story, though on May 20 she did reply to a series of questions The Observer emailed her.
“We listened hard to their concerns and they were very articulate in voicing that they seek community understanding and education,” Cleary wrote in her email about her first meeting with the Sinai students.
She added that she and Munhofen spoke to the student who made the posters and “the student is aware of the impact of the posters.”
When asked if there was a faculty or staff member assigned to oversee the World Affair event, Cleary responded that there was not.
The school’s plan moving forward, she indicated, was to create a forum for understanding and education for the next school year.
“We will work with students and faculty again in the fall to help shape this,” she wrote.
The school also issued a statement to The Observer: “The Miami Valley School has a unique, rich, and long history of religious diversity since its founding in 1964. Members of our community know and cherish this. Current board members, faculty, and students are Jewish, and events throughout the year are planned to celebrate all cultures and religions. Our mission is to educate compassionate global citizens. Therefore, we always have and always will embrace and embody diversity. We succeed in this regard by adhering to our core values of grit, celebration, integrity, and kindness in honoring all traditions.”
Cleary’s responses to The Observer formed the basis for a letter she emailed May 21 to parents of Sinai Scholars. Families of Jewish students in the upper school who aren’t in the Sinai program were not included in that communication.
The email said the school would hold a symposium for the next school year that would focus on civil discourse and the critical need to listen.
Cleary added in the email that “due to the end of the year exams and final projects, there is little time left in the school year to plan a meaningful event this year.”
“We felt like we could really talk to her and voice our feelings,” Schwartz said of Cleary’s initial meeting with the students. “But I think there could have been more action other than just listening. It felt as if it was just being pushed off and I think that’s where a lot of people are still upset, because they feel like even though she said she understood what we were feeling, what we wanted to do, it seems like she’s trying to sweep it under the rug almost. We really want action now.”
Schwartz said that action is to teach the rest of the student body about antisemitism, about Judaism, and the culture of values it embodies.
“We’re not murderers or land thieves as the girl put on her poster,” she said.
Parents Amy and Mike Bloom and parents of two other Sinai students in the high school emailed Cleary that her response was inadequate.
“It could have easily been a very positive learning experience for kids and for the school and for the parents,” Mike Bloom said. “The kids handled it at the beginning and that was the goal, to let them take the front line in this and deal with the school and not have the parents helicopter-parenting this. They’re going to face this in a college setting. It’s almost a guarantee.”
Bloom said at first he tried to have all the Sinai parents sign his letter but couldn’t get everyone on the same page about suggesting a plan of action for the school.
“She (Cleary) might have gotten a lot of different voices on her,” he added.
A second letter from the school, emailed to families of all students in the high school on June 7 (minus Cleary’s name), referred only to Jewish students coming forward with “deep concern” over “two posters made by one student” that did not share the “spirit of the event,” and that the school “should have properly screened the posters” since it was not meant to be a “political event.”
Bloom said he was frustrated that Miami Valley didn’t denounce the antisemitic nature of the posters.
“You have to address those issues to move forward,” he said.
“I saw this as blatant antisemitism,” Rabbi Nochum Mangel, director of Chabad of Greater Dayton, said of the posters. Mangel has also served as chair of the Sinai Scholars initiative since its inception.
“I would like to believe that this is ignorance,” Mangel said. “And then we have the obligation — and I hope the school accepts that suggestion — that there should be in-teacher training. The teachers should understand what the issues are here and why this is considered antisemitic and not just another narrative about some other political issue: that when you have a picture of the Middle East of Palestine with no Israel, what does that suggest? That suggests Jews have no place.”
‘The school should do more’
Mangel added that his guide to determine if criticism of Israel is antisemitic is the “3D test” as delineated by Natan Sharansky (below).
“There’s a consensus that this school should do more,” Mangel said. “The hope from all of us is that the school uses this as an opportunity to teach the rest of the school what the real issues are and why this is antisemitism.”
In a May 23 email to Cleary and Miami Valley School’s board president, Doug Jenks, Mangel went so far as to question the school’s motives for not distancing itself from the display.
“Is it possible that as the leaders of the school you receive pressure from the Palestinian community who insist that you refrain from making such a simple statement of the school’s non-endorsement, and if that is the case I wonder are the Sinai students, parents and benefactors taken for granted that it is OK to ignore their concerns and cave to others?”
The student who put together the Palestine booth, who has since graduated, shared her views on the display in an Instagram post:
“Being against a government is different from being against a people. And my sincerest apologies that the posters didn’t fit the ‘vibe’ or ‘spirit’ of the event but when celebrating the culture of the Palestinian people the struggles and ethnic cleansing of the people will not go dismissed. Support of a nation whose culture is violently and belligerently being destroyed, stolen, and disbanded should be presented, shown, and discussed and respected. The over looking of this conflict and this specific point of view is terribly common and fiercely misunderstood and the advocacy of the Palestinian story and people is absolutely vital in having a ‘richly diverse institution.’”
Lee Schear, who along with his wife, Patti, established and has funded the Sinai Scholars program since its beginning, said he is also concerned that non-Jewish students in the high school might go forward thinking “this kind of antisemitism is permissible.”
“MVS has chosen to handle this matter internally whereas we see the impact of the incident as external and insufficiently addressed after almost four weeks of prodding,” Schear emphasized.
Since 2010, the Sinai Scholars program has provided scholarships to more than 50 students at the Miami Valley School, funding for the Judaics electives in the middle and high schools, and has sponsored a Sunday program for any Jewish middle and high school students in the Dayton area, which now continues at the high school level.
In 2018, the Schears announced they were transitioning away from the Sinai program at Miami Valley in favor of scholarships at Hillel Academy Jewish day school, which services students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
They’ve committed to seeing the 11 current Sinai Scholars at Miami Valley through their graduations in 2021.
“We feel that the in-school Sinai work with the rabbis and with Harry Berkowitz (world civilizations and Sinai electives instructor at Miami Valley) and his predecessors has been outstanding and has changed the lives of our scholars and their parents for the better,” Schear added.
Sinai electives offered each semester focus on the history of Judaism and Israel.
Cleary has cited student confidentiality as a key reason why the school has decided not to address the World Affair situation publicly.
Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton CEO Cathy Gardner described the Palestinian display as “deeply distressing” and said it does constitute a community issue. She reached out to open a dialogue with Cleary.
“The biggest problem that I see is when opinions are put forth in a manner that makes students feel a threat to their identity,” Gardner said. “It makes them shut down. There have to be safe places for Jews and non-Jews to have critical discussions about Israel where ideas, policies and facts are discussed.”
Part of a national trend
Gardner said the incident at The Miami Valley School is indicative of what’s happening across the country.
“At first, we were seeing it predominantly on college campuses,” Gardner said. “We need to create relationships in our community so that we are acting as part of a whole and not outside of it.”
Devorah Schwartz, now a rising junior at Miami Valley, isn’t in the Sinai program but has participated in the Sunday program and last fall took the Sinai elective, Generations of Jerusalem, at Miami Valley.
She said that though parents and rabbis were trying to help the students, she thought there was a huge disconnect between what the students wanted and what the adults wanted.
“And even though they were just trying to help, sometimes it seemed like they were just not helping,” Schwartz said. “They were kind of doing the opposite because we were communicating to Ms. Cleary that we just wanted to educate. We didn’t want punishment. We just want to make our school better.”
When it comes to the high schoolers as a whole at the 45-minute World Affair, Schwartz said a lot of them didn’t care because they don’t understand the issues.
But she also said “there are a lot of students that share the same views about Israel” at Miami Valley as the senior who put together the Palestine display.
“This has been an ongoing thing where they will say things like, ‘Israel is illegitimate’ or ‘We wish we could nuke Israel,’” Schwartz said. “I’ve heard that before. They (faculty and staff) don’t do anything. It’s a shame we have to deal with that at all among other students.”
Even so, Schwartz described her experience as a Jewish student at Miami Valley as “amazing.”
“We’re really, really a tight-knit group of kids,” she said. “We don’t let each other fall. We are always there for one another. We’re really proud of our Jewish heritage. We make announcements frequently about the holidays, we proudly tell people ‘We’re going to Sinai today and we’re getting pizza bagels.’”
About the coming school year, Schwartz said, “None of us are letting this go away until there is a solution. We’ve all said that next year we are going to be adamant about making sure there is a symposium or presentation of some sort where we can get our point across. We can do what we need to do.”
When does anti-Zionism become antisemitism?
Israel Action Network, Jewish Federations of North America
Anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism when it:
• Denies the legitimacy of the state of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty in any portion of its ancient homeland.
• Applies a double-standard by denying the Jewish state, but no other state, the right to express its national identity.
• Uses Holocaust and other antisemitic imagery to prove its point.
• Demonizes Israel, its Jewish citizens, or Jewish people globally entirely for nuanced issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
• Portrays Jews as white European colonial invaders of the land of Israel. This gross historical inaccuracy denies the indigeneity of Jews in the land for millennia and erases the stories of more than half of Israel’s Jewish citizens who are people of color.
• Focuses on the Israel-Palestinian conflict to the exclusion of all else that is going on in the Arab world or the larger region. Moral integrity is linked to moral consistency. Critiquing some while ignoring the wrongs of others is a sign of bias, such as failure to criticize Palestinians and Arab countries for wrong behavior, or for the very same things for which Israel is criticized.
3D test of antisemitism, Natan Sharansky (2004), former member of Knesset, former head of Jewish Agency for Israel
• The first D is the test of demonization. When the Jewish state is being demonized; when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz — this is antisemitism, not legitimate criticism of Israel.
• The second D is the test of double standards. When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behavior of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored — this is antisemitism.
• The third D is the test of delegitimization: when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied — alone among all peoples in the world — this too is antisemitism.
Full disclosure regarding this story: The author’s daughter is enrolled at The Miami Valley Upper School and receives a scholarship through the Sinai Scholars program.