Elite Private New York School Faces Allegations of Escalating Antisemitism
“The school has a problem saying the words ‘Jewish’ or ‘Jew,’ ” one Jewish parent of a student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, NY, told the magazine. “And calling out hate against this community.”
Jewish parents traced back problems at Fieldston, which was founded by Jews, to the launch of its Affinity Group program in 2015, which organizes students by ethnicity and race from the third through fifth grades.
The school denied requests for a Jewish affinity group. When Jewish students expressed concerns about antisemitism, fellow classmates told them they should be considered white and privileged, and therefore could not be victims of discrimination.
When swastikas were found in halls and classrooms that same year, Fieldston responded by giving a presentation to students that did not mention how the symbol was used as a Nazi emblem. Facing backlash, the school later sent out a letter that identified swastikas “as a hateful symbol of the Nazi genocide, the Holocaust, antisemitism, fascism, and the destruction of European Jewry and other victims of the Nazi regime.”
The leadership’s response to incidents of antisemitism fit a pattern of “sincere if limited efforts to address it, or pro forma apologies, or simply indifference,” one faculty member told Tablet.
The magazine outlined various issues Jewish parents had with the school, including the fact that following the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, the school sent out a letter that did not include the word “antisemitism” and highlighted the positive reaction by the Muslim community of Pittsburgh. Then following the Chabad of Poway shooting in April, Fieldston distributed a letter that did not identify the victims as Jewish, but instead as “Passover worshippers” and contextualized the shooting among other recent events.
Jewish parents were recently outraged when Columbia University Law School adjunct Kayum Ahmed compared Holocaust survivors to Nazis while speaking to Fieldston high school students on Nov. 21.
School administrators waited until the Wednesday after Thanksgiving to issue a statement, in which Head of School Jessica Bagby said, “We are taking the opportunity brought by this incident not to discuss this particular speaker or his words, but to reaffirm our institution’s firmly held values. We will not accept antisemitism. We will not accept racism. We will not accept sexism. We will not accept homophobia. We will not accept transphobia. We will not accept xenophobia. We will not accept hatred in all its ugly shapes and forms.”
One father said the letter “was worse than doing nothing,” noting the school’s refusal to single out antisemitism and lack of condemnation of Ahmed’s comments. He said, “It was simply a ‘f**k you,’ and entirely infuriating.” Another parent said she immediately began looking for a different school for her children.