(June 7, 2021 / JNS) When about 10 years ago I ran a pro-Israel organization that educated and trained high school and college students, I often heard a refrain from Jewish students, especially those who had gone to Jewish day schools, alleging that they had been lied to by the Jewish community about Israel. They were introduced to the âDisneylandâ version of the Jewish state, a magical kingdom that could do no wrong. Once these students got to college and heard alternative opinions, they felt cheated. Some have joined protest groups like âIfNotNowâ.
Most Jewish day schools became more nuanced over time and began to teach varied Zionist thinkers, competing narratives, and diverse perspectives. But the damage was already done.
You would think that Jewish day schools would have learned their lesson not to instill dogma in their students. Indeed, many pride themselves on imparting critical thinking skills. But I hear that many Jewish schools, like so many other educational institutions, teach a unique perspective on social issues. They were swept away by “The Great Awakening”, teaching on race and racism with all the nuances of my Zionist Youth Director’s enthusiastic endorsement of Menachem Begin’s peace policies. Like many public and private schools, they adopted Critical Race Theory (CRT) not as one of many theoretical lenses through which to see the world, but as the only true path.
CRT is a cadre who claims that racial oppression is ingrained in the very structures of American society and is often invisible to the ruling class. Supporters of the CRT generally view America as a white supremacist society and racism as the only legitimate explanation for the disparity between the groups. TRC is, of course, a perfectly valid way of analyzing social issues. A hallmark of applied CRT, however, is its insistence on its own unchallenged and inviolable truth. And following the murder of George Floyd by police last year in Minneapolis, many educators acceded to the request for unconditional acceptance.
The Heschel School, for example, one of the nation’s first pluralist Jewish day schools in New York City, appears to adopt a CRT framework. âWe will learn from all our attempts to strengthen an anti-racist position in our agenda and our community and, true to the teachings of Rabbi Heschel, to embrace the imperative to take responsibility for systemic racism and injustice, as well as our roles in perpetuating these systems of inequality, âsay school administrators.
I don’t question the school values. Jewish day schools should teach Jewish children to be respectful and tolerant, to oppose racism and prejudice, and to work for a just and equitable society. But How? ‘Or’ What they make it count. The “anti-racist” language suggests that the school considers these values ââthrough the prism of Ibrahim X. Kendi How to be anti-racist, a staple of the modern cathode ray tube. If, as the school asserts, there is “systemic racism” in America, to what extent does systemic racism exist and where it manifests itself are matters of notice, not an expression of values. These are questions that should be discussed and debated, not answers that should be promulgated and instilled. How would teachers view a student who argues that systemic racism is exaggerated? Would they regard the student’s arguments as a legitimate inquiry or would they lecture him on heresy? Does Heschel teach systemic racism as truths or theories? The language they use suggests the first.
The mission of Jewish day schools should be to teach students how to think, not what to think. I’m sure Heschel and other day schools see themselves doing just that. But the school’s anti-racist statement suggests otherwise, at least in the realm of the most important social problem of our time.
How many anti-racism Jewish day school programs examine the various assumptions of the CRT and offer competing theoretical approaches, such as the role of economics, culture, and past oppression in explaining disparities?
How many schools assign students to read How to be anti-racist also assign them the reading of a black heterodox thinker such as John McWhorter? I will be pleasantly surprised if this is the case. Books like How to be anti-racist and Robin DiAngelo White fragility are often treated more like sacred texts than books.
Is this really the only way Jewish schools can teach racial equality? The obvious answer is no.
New Trier Township High School, a magnetic school in the Chicago area, expresses very clearly its commitment to a diverse educational approach. He unequivocally states that âa fundamental aspect of our mission is to develop critical thinkers capable of navigating a complex world through civil discourse, respectful inquiry, engaged listening and open consideration of multiple perspectivesâ¦ exchange. open to ideas is at the heart of a democratic system. a society in which people are responsible for their actions and treat each other with dignity, compassion and respect.
Jewish day schools should not be less dedicated to critical thinking and diversity of viewpoints. All Jewish day school parents should insist that their children have access to a full range of perspectives. Every day school director should express the value of the diversity of points of view explicitly in the declaration of the school in Trier. Every day, teachers should teach several perspectives, not just about Israel and Zionism, but about race and racism, gender and sexuality.
In today’s polarized environment, riddled with fake news and manipulation, if there was ever a time to double down on teaching critical thinking skills without dogma, it is now.
David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values ââ(JILV.org). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.