Freedom to teach hate: Riverdale teacher, fired after anti-Semitic tweets, draws support


A history teacher at a Riverdale prep school fired after posting anti-Semitic tweets and making an obscene gesture toward two Jewish religious leaders visiting the school, drew a torrent of support from people identifying themselves as members of the school and Riverdale communities and as leaders of progressive Jewish institutions.

An editorial in the local newspaper, headlined “Shattering the First Amendment,” also criticized the firing.

Riverdale, in western Bronx, is a heavily Jewish community with Jewish schools and several Orthodox shuls.

The teacher, JB Brager, who self-identifies as Jewish, was let go after 18 months with the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, described by the New York Times as “one of New York City’s most proudly progressive private schools.” Both Brager and the school declined to elaborate.

Brager’s troubles began in November when Kayum Ahmed, an adjunct faculty member at Columbia Law School, linked Israel to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany — with Shoah “victims becoming the perpetrators” — in a talk at Fieldston.

After Ahmed’s incendiary statement, Brager tweeted, “I support BDS and Palestinian sovereignty, and I have for my entire life. I refuse to reaffirm the value of ethnonationalist settler colonialism.”

To assuage parents upset by the remarks, Fieldston’s upper school principal, Nigel Furlonge, announced that the spiritual leaders of two Reform congregations in Manhattan would address a school assembly on Jan. 9.

Following Furlonge’s announcement, Brager tweeted, “for a school assembly on anti-Semitism, SURE GO AHEAD and invite two white men who run Reform congregations, both of whom are Zionists, one that wrote that the ‘most insidious strain [of American anti-Semitism] is that of anti-Zionist intersectionality’.”

“When institutions of ‘learning’ bow to political pressure to disavow historical reality, what can educators do within that institution?” tweeted Brager.

At the Jan. 9 assembly, Brager made an obscene gesture toward one of the speakers before walking out, according to two parents quoted by the Times.

There was a quick pile on of left-wing criticism over Brager’s firing.

A Jewish Voice for Peace online petition signed by 78 called for Brager’s reinstatement and said “it is irresponsible and dangerous to equate critiques of Israel as anti-Semitism.”

“Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, and by equating the two, Fieldston cheapens the real fear and danger of anti-Semitism,” the petition said. “By firing Dr. Brager you send a strong message to your students — that dissent should be feared, that expressing one’s right to free speech has limitations, that differing opinions will not be tolerated, that there is one story of history that can be allowed, and there is one kind of Jewish person.”

The Riverdale Press, the neighborhood’s secular newspaper, editorialized last week that “even dissenting opinions are worthy of exploration and discussion, as part of the free exchange of ideas that our Founding Fathers had hoped to perpetrate in the establishment of this country.”

“It’s unfortunate what happened to Brager,” the editorial said. “It’s unfortunate that a member of Fieldston’s faculty didn’t feel they could start a conversation with the school’s administration on how it would deal with hot-button discussions like those of Israel and Palestinians. … We must stop punishing each other for the opinions we hold, and just listen.” The Riverdale Press and The Jewish Star are owned by the same parent company but the newspapers operate independently of each other.

A letter published in this week’s Riverdale Press criticized both the newspaper’s editorial and its news story on the subject, complaining that “your entire story clearly adopted the narrative of Brager’s supporters, framing the controversy in their terms, and giving only token coverage to Brager’s critics.”

Reader objects to Riverdale Press coverage of the firing of Fieldston School teacher JB Brager.
Reader objects to Riverdale Press coverage of the firing of Fieldston School teacher JB Brager.

Opposite its editorial last week, the Press published the text of a letter addressed to the Fieldston board that an editor’s note said was signed by more than 200 people.

That letter alleged that “the administration fired J.B. in response to pressure from a small set of conservative parents, who in turn were supported by smear attacks on J.B. in the right wing press.”

The letter said Fieldston was “not interested in addressing anti-Semitism or protecting Jewish community members, but in signaling the conservative Jewish donors that the school will punish dissenters from those donors’ views.”

Letter to the board of Ethical Culture Fieldstone School calling for the reinstatement of teacher JB Brager.
Letter to the board of Ethical Culture Fieldstone School calling for the reinstatement of teacher JB Brager.

The New York Times website published an op-ed piece by the two Reform leaders who spoke at Fieldston — Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and Joshua Davidson, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El. 

“To accuse Holocaust survivors of inflicting Nazi-like violence on others, as the guest speaker at Fieldston had, is morally grotesque. … To describe Zionism as racism, to deny Israel’s most basic right to exist, is anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent. …

“Israel’s enemies protest that they are simply anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, yet their view of justice requires eliminating the one and only Jewish state. And they attack it with such venom. Their hatred of Israel is a primal loathing.”

“A hateful obsession with Israel too often descends into hatred of Jews, even if it doesn’t start there,” they wrote. “Hateful words lead to hateful deeds. This environment produces, teaches, accelerates and normalizes anti-Semitism. …

“Jewish parents should be especially worried. When teachers and professors turn the classroom into an arena for anti-Israel animosity, students become unwitting pawns instead of safeguarded learners.”