fighting hate

Riverdale prep school fires teacher over anti-Semitic tweets


A teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale was fired last week after being accused of posting anti-Semitic comments on social media.

J.B. Brager, a history teacher at the school who self-identifies as Jewish, confirmed being let go after 18 months on the job but declined further comment. Fieldston administrators declined to comment on what it described as a personnel matter, but said “the school does not tolerate hurtful, offensive or exclusionary content or comment from any member of the community.”

Brager’s troubles began in November when A. Kayum Ahmed, a lecturer at Columbia Law School and division director at the Open Society Foundations, told a Fieldston audience, according to a video posted by the Washington Free Beacon:

“Xenophobic attacks are a shameful part of South African history, but in some ways it reflects the fluidity between those who are victims becoming perpetrators. I use the same example in talking about the Holocaust. That Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel today — they perpetuate violences against Palestinians that are unthinkable. So again, the victims of the Holocaust and the violence have become the perpetrators of injustice against the Palestinians.”

Tablet magazine reported that parents were “shaken and outraged” by the remark.

According to Tablet and the Beacon, sometime following Ahmed’s remarks, 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.”

On Dec. 17, the principal of Fieldston’s upper school, Nigel Furlonge, wrote in an email obtained by JTA that the school had “engaged in a meaningful internal dialogue about what the experiences have been, both historically and currently, for Jewish faculty and students at ECFS.” He announced that on Jan. 9, the spiritual leaders of two Reform congregations in Manhattan, Ammiel Hirsch from Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and Joshua Davidson from Temple Emanu-El, would address a school assembly.

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’.” Brager ended the tweet with three angry-face emojis. In the tweet, Brager was quoting a modified sentence from an op-ed by Davidson in the Jewish Week.

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

When he appeared on Jan. 9, Hirsch defended Zionism and challenged the arguments of anti-Zionists.

“Understand what they mean when they say they are not anti-Jewish, just anti-Zionist,” Hirsch said. “They mean that, from their perspective, justice requires extinguishing the one and only Jewish state — the size of New Jersey — in favor of a 23rd state of the Arab world that collectively has a greater land mass than the entire United States.”

“When you encounter anti-Israel protests, ask the protesters what they are protesting,” Hirsch told the students, according to information supplied by his synagogue. “And if they tell you they are against Zionism — that Zionism is racism — ask them how they see the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and listen carefully to their response. They want not accommodation with Israel, but the elimination of Israel.”

Kricorian, however, finds accusations of anti-Semitism are nothing more than a weapon used to silence any criticism of Israel policies. 

“Fieldston’s administration is afraid — as are many school administrations — of being accused of anti-Semitism,” she said. “There are real and terrifying acts of hatred and violence being perpetrated against Jewish people, but a Jewish teacher’s anti-Zionist opinions and social media posts are not anti-Semitism.”

But one cannot separate Judaism and Israel, said Cindy Grosz of Woodmere, a Jewish activist and writer.

“Israel is historically, religiously, emotionally and legally the land of the Jewish people,” she said. “And anybody who wants to talk about boycotting Israel … it’s just a way of saying that they are anti-Semitic.”

Rabbi Wise described Brager’s firing as part of a larger issue: That of the First Amendment.

“What alarmed me was that it fit perfectly into a pattern with what we’ve been seeing, honestly, in higher education,” she said, “but more broadly the repression of — and silencing of — critics of Israel.”

Following Brager’s termination, Fieldston trustees received a letter signed by more than 650 Fieldston alumni, northwest Bronx community leaders, alumni parents, and members of queer and Jewish communities as well as communities of color.

“Right now there is a growing cohort of young Jewish students who are involved with organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now,” said Nancy Kricorian, an author and mother of two Fieldston alumni, who signed the letter. “They are leftist and or progressive, and their values include a commitment to equality and justice for Palestinians. They are often the target of these coordinated attacks that take the form of what we’re seeing at Fieldston and other forms, such as legal attacks on people’s right to free speech.”

In 2017, George Burns, principal of the lower school, quit after claiming head of school Jessica Bagby made anti-Semitic comments — claims Bagby, at the time, denied. And last year, a group calling itself Students of Color Matter took over an administration building at the school in protest after a video surfaced of Fieldston students allegedly making racial slurs.

More: Click for Kirstyn Brendan's report in The Riverdale Press and Ben Sales report on the JTA newswire.