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January 17, 2012 4:49 pm

A Challenge to the Friends Seminary: Let Your Students Read This Essay About How the School is Legitimating Anti-Semitism

avatar by Alan Dershowitz


Friends Seminary. Photo: John Galayda.

If you want to understand why anti-Semitism seems to be increasing among young people—especially young people on the hard left—consider a recent invitation extended by a group affiliated with the Friends Seminary in New York to a self-proclaimed Jew hater.

The Friends Schools around the country are legendary.  Presidents’ children attend them, my own daughter and nephew were students, and they are regarded as among the most elite schools in the world.  That is why it is so shocking that the Friends Seminary in New York has lent its imprimatur to a notorious anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.  Friends Seminary has a reputation for some of its faculty propagandizing its students against Israel, but it has now crossed a red line into legitimating anti-Semitism.

Gilad Atzmon, who was invited to be a featured performer in a celebration of Martin Luther King at the Friends Meetinghouse, has written an overtly anti-Semitic book entitled “The Wandering Who?”, which, he acknowledges, draws…much of his “insights from a man who…was an anti-Semite as well as a radical misogynist.”

Among the “insights” Atzmon seeks to share with students are the following:

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While the Holocaust “was not at all an historical narrative,” and Auschwitz was not a “death camp,” the “accusations of Jews making matzo out of young Goyim’s blood,” may be true.

“The Jews” caused the recent credit crunch, which the author calls “the Zio-punch.”

If Iran and Israel fight a nuclear war that kills millions of people, “some may be bold enough to argue that ‘Hitler might have been right after all.'”

The “new Jewish religion…could well be the most sinister religion known to man…”

We “must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously,” and that “with Fagin and Shylock in mind, Israeli barbarism and organ trafficking seem to be just other events in an endless hellish continuum.”

The author of the book containing these statements has told students that he cannot “say whether it’s right or not to burn down a synagogue. I can say that it is a rational act.” He has also apologized to the Nazis for having earlier compared them to Israel:  “Israel is in fact far worse than Nazi Germany.”

It is not as if Friends School is unfamiliar with Atzmon’s anti-Semitic rants.  Atzmon was previously invited to make a guest appearance in a class last year and one of his hate-filled essays was assigned to the students.  The essay came from his website, which is replete with anti-Semitic “insights.”

When I heard about these invitations, I wrote the following letter to the school’s Headmaster, Robert (Bo) Lauder:

Your school is now legitimating anti-Semitism by inviting a self-described Jew hater, Gilad Atzmon, to participate in events at the school.  This sends a powerful message to your students, and to other students around the world, that Atzmon’s views are legitimate and an appropriate subject for discussion in academic circles.  [I then quoted from his writings.]  If you believe these views are appropriately discussed, considered and possibly accepted by your students, then you are doing the right thing by associating your school with the man who expressed them.  If not, then you are doing a terrible disservice to your students and to the values for which the Friends School purports to stand.

I cannot overemphasize how serious this matter is.  Legitimating the oldest form of bigotry is a moral and academic sin.  I cannot remain silent in the face of complicity with bigotry.  Nor should you.

The Headmaster did not respond to my letter, but he had the director of development (the fundraiser) send me an email saying that Atzmon was invited “solely for his musical accomplishments” and that the invitation was extended by “the Meetinghouse Jazz Orchestra.”
Atzmon performed on January 13 to honor a man—Martin Luther King—who despised anti-Semitism and violence, and would have been appalled by Atzmon’s suggestion that burning down a synagogue would be a “rational act.”  Students cheered Atzmon’s performance and conversed with him.

In the face of incontrovertible evidence from Atzmon’s own writings that he is a virulent Jew hater, the Headmaster exacerbated the problem by writing an open letter to parents and students in which he described this hateful bigot as merely “a controversial political activist”—a neutral term he would never use to describe an overt racist, sexist or homophobe.  He also defended the decision to invite Atzmon to a class on the ground that he spoke only about music and not about politics.  This is a misleading half-truth at best, since the teacher assigned the students to read one of his hate-filled political essays.  (The Friends Seminary has an explicit policy against “misleading” half-truths.)

I cannot imagine an overtly homophobic, sexist or racist musician being invited by any group in any way associated with Friends “solely for his musical accomplishments.”  (I hear that David Duke, the white supremacist, plays a mean saxophone, but don’t expect to hear him play with the Meetinghouse Jazz Orchestra any time soon!)  Atzmon is famous (really infamous) not because he is a distinguished musician, but rather because he is a notorious anti-Semite whose blogs are featured on neo-Nazi websites all over the world.  He never would have been invited but for his well publicized bigotry.  Friends Seminary is known for inviting artists whose politics and ideology are consistent with the values of the school.  Indeed, the poster advertising his featured appearance at the “22nd Annual Martin Luther King Concert” at the “Meetinghouse at Friends Seminary” included a description of him as a “writer” and “political activist,” without disclosing that his writings and political activities are overtly anti-Semitic.

The Friends Seminary seems to have a different and more permissive standard when it comes to anti-Semitism than when it comes to racism, sexism and homophobia.

However the school may try to spin this invitation, the end result will be that Atzmon’s bigoted views will have been given the imprimatur of the Friends Seminary.

This is not an issue of “rights” or “free speech.”  The Friends Seminary certainly had the “right” to invite Atzmon, and Atzmon certainly has the right to exercise his free speech on any street corner.  I would have defended these rights (as I defended the right of Nazis to march through Skokie) had the government tried to stop Atzmon from playing or speaking.  But Friends also had the right to choose not to invite Atzmon, as it has chosen not to invite racist, sexist and homophobic artists and speakers.  That it chose to exercise its right by inviting Atzmon is shameful.

Nor did I try to cancel the concert, as Atzmon has mendaciously argued.  I was exercising my own free speech right to hold the Friends Seminary accountable for its immoral decision to become complicit with evil and to legitimate anti-Semitism.

When Nazi anti-Semitism began to achieve mainstream legitimacy in Germany and Austria in the 1930’s, it was not because Hitler, Goebbels and Goering were espousing it.  Their repulsive views had been known for years.  It was because non Nazis—especially prominent academics, politicians and artists—were refusing to condemn anti-Semitism and those who espoused it.

It has been said that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Those who invited Atzmon to the Friends Seminary may be good men and women, but they are guilty of more than merely doing nothing.  They are, by their actions, helping to legitimate the oldest of bigotries.  Shame on them!

In order to test Friends’ Seminary’s commitment to freedom of speech and diversity of viewpoints, I am challenging the Headmaster and the teacher who assigned Atzmon’s essay to distribute this essay to the students and parents.  Let’s see whether they are committed to freedom of speech that is critical of their actions and those of the Friends Seminary.  If they refuse, I hope that students will exercise their own free speech right to circulate this essay and to discuss it among themselves as part of their education.  Such a discussion would be far more in the spirit of Martin Luther King and the articulated values of the Friends Seminary than inviting a bigot who believes that Jews are “trying to control the world” and that “burning down a synagogue” is a “rational act.”

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