Let us engage in a brief thought experiment. Suppose that Howard University hires a linguistics professor to offer instruction on various African dialects. Suppose further that said professor was a card-carrying member of the KKK and participates in Klan meetings and demonstrations. Now suppose that the university, after failing to properly vet the professor’s extra-curricular activities, is confronted with hard evidence of the professor’s Klan affiliation and instead of firing him offers a spirited defense of his employment at Howard.
School officials argue that 1) the professor is entitled to his personal beliefs 2) students should respect those differences, no matter how odious and 3) there is no evidence that the professor introduced his personal views into the classroom. Such a scenario would not only be implausible, it would be unfathomable. An institution so historically central in the Civil Rights movement would never tolerate the presence of such malevolence in its university and rightfully so.
But this precise scenario is currently unfolding in Durham, North Carolina at a Hebrew day school known as the Lerner School. In fact, the situation at the Lerner School is far more egregious than the aforementioned example because its problematic actions are not merely limited to one single teacher, but are far wider in scope and scale.
On its website, the Lerner School states that it is dedicated to “implementing a curriculum committed to academic excellence, embedded in Jewish values and learning … and builds in children confidence, character, a lifelong love of learning, and a deeply rooted Jewish identity” (emphasis added). Elsewhere on the website the Lerner School boasts that it “assists all students in developing a positive Jewish identity and pride in their Jewish heritage” (emphasis added).
Despite such positive boasts, internal school documents and public information readily available on the Internet indicate that something dark and sinister lurks in the hallways of the Lerner School, something very contrary to the claim of instilling Jewish identity, pride and heritage.
Up until recently, the Lerner School employed an individual named Tal Matalon as a Hebrew teacher. Hailing from Haifa, Matalon is Israeli and speaks Hebrew, but that’s her sole nexus to her Jewish identity. An Internet search reveals that Matalon was a draft dodger, refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces because she refused to assist the “occupation” forces. This places her on the radical left fringes of Israel’s political spectrum and this form of political protest is soundly rejected by the vast majority of Israelis. She also signed a letter addressed to former prime minister Ariel Sharon falsely claiming that Israel “commits war crimes and tramples over human rights, destroying Palestinian cities, towns and villages.” It should be noted that Matalon offers not a scintilla of evidence to back these spurious charges. Moreover, her treasonous actions took place at a time when Palestinian homicide bombers were detonating themselves on a weekly basis in cafes, restaurants and city buses.
This disconcerting information was readily available on the Internet, yet the Lerner School accepted her nonetheless. But Matalon’s draft dodging and disparagement of the Israel Defense Forces is the least of her problems. Her hatred of Israel runs far deeper, as evidenced by her disturbing conduct and affiliations while in the United States.
Matalon is a supporter of the anti-Semitic BDS movement. She has also been photographed attending various anti-Israel events organized by anti-Semitic groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and these photographs have been featured in social media forums hosted by the aforementioned groups. In one photo, she is seen holding a sign advocating the boycott of the Jewish State.
When confronted with this and other evidence of maleficence, school officials circled the wagons and offered a spirited defense of their draft-dodging, SJP sympathizing, BDS supporter. Spearheading the defense was Lerner School Board president Tal Lewin Wittle. In an internal school memo obtained by Frontpage, Ms. Wittle argued that 1) Matalon was entitled to her opinion, which constituted speech protected by law, 2) to her knowledge, Matalon never inserted her personal views into the classroom and 3) displaying a sign in support of the anti-Semitic BDS movement, while “disturbing” to “some,” does not run counter to the Lerner School’s mission or core values.
Ms. Wittle is correct when she says that Matalon is entitled to her opinion, no matter how odious. But the Lerner School is a private institution and those under its employ are subject to the school’s code of conduct. If she wants to be employed by the school, she must abide by its rules. Clearly, Matalon’s association with the rabidly anti-Semitic BDS movement and her affiliation with JVP and the SJP and her repeated, unjustified and baseless attacks against the Israel Defense Forces, the institution entrusted with defending the Jewish State against genocidal enemies, is not congruent with a Hebrew school whose mission is to develop a positive Jewish identity and instill pride in their student’s Jewish heritage.
Moreover, even if Matalon never inserted her personal views into the classroom, the message cannot be separated from the messenger. As a responsible parent, I would never permit my child to be taught by a teacher who subscribes to views which echo those of the Nazi Brown Shirts who began their anti-Jewish campaigns by advocating boycotts against Jewish-owned businesses. Upon learning of her conduct and abhorrent views, it was incumbent on the Lerner School to terminate her employment forthwith. At present, although Matalon’s name is not listed on the Lerner School website, there is no concrete evidence confirming that her employment with the school has ceased, and the school would not respond to questions regarding this matter.
But why would Wittle expend resources and the Lerner School’s reputation defending a miscreant like Matalon? The answer lies in the fact that the pernicious BDS philosophy at the Lerner School is not limited to Matalon. The sad truth is that the Lerner School is infected with BDS activists and anti-Israel rejectionists.
The Lerner School’s Director of Development, Rachel Sobel Bearman, has boasted membership in a virulently anti-Israel group known as Jews for a Just Peace North Carolina (JFAJP-NC). Though it touts itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace (sound familiar?) JFAJP-NC has adopted positions well to the left of the Israeli left. It has lobbied for the display of anti-Israel ads that call for an end to US military assistance to Israel and has also lobbied the United States Congress to adopt anti-Israel positions.
Bearman herself authored an article endorsing a conference featuring the Palestine Solidarity Movement. PSM leaders have advocated the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians. Moreover, the purpose of the PSM conference was to advance the anti-Semitic positions promoted by BDS, including divestment from Israel. Equally astonishing is Bearman’s attempt to morally equate the actions of the Israel Defense Forces in defending its citizenry with those of Hamas, the group that adheres to a charter that borrows heavily from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. She refers to "the double standard of some Jewish groups that insist that Palestinian groups condemn the killing of innocent civilians by suicide bombers but refuse to insist that Israeli groups similarly condemn the killing of innocent civilians by the Israeli military[.]” That comparison is morally obscene and demonstrates with utmost clarity Bearman’s convoluted and bankrupted ideology and disdain for the Jewish State.
In addition, Ms. Bearman signed an anti-Israel petition alongside other signatories who labeled Israel as “terrorist,” called for an end to US military aid to Israel and called for the displacement of Israel’s Jewish population. It is not by accident that Bearman continuously finds herself in the company of those committed to ending the Jewish State. That the Lerner School would entrust such a person to be its “Director of Development” speaks volumes about the trajectory the school wishes to assume.
Nor is the Lerner School’s board of directors immune from the BDS infestation. Andrew Janiak is a former Board member and the husband of Rebecca L. Stein, an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. Stein is an avid BDS supporter and is singularly obsessed with criticizing the Jewish State, as reflected in her life’s work. She is also a contributor to the hate site, Mondoweiss. David Bernstein of the Washington Post aptly described Mondoweiss as a one-stop shop for anti-Israel invective.
Stein also signed an anti-Israel petition calling for the “right of [Arab] refugees expelled during the Nakba to return to Israel.” This viewpoint represents the most extreme position advocated by anti-Israel rejectionists. If implemented, it would flood Israel with millions of hostile “refugees” and would spell the end of the Jewish State and the Zionist enterprise. Stein is no fool and is certainly cognizant of this ominous fact.
Stein has offered excuse and justification for Hamas rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. She referred to Israel’s counter-insurgency efforts against Hamas terrorists in Gaza as an “obscene assault.” She has falsely charged that “Jewish gangs in Israel hunted Palestinians in the streets.” She has falsely charged that East Jerusalem is under “military occupation.” She recently authored a one-sided, anti-Israel screed, liberally laced with anti-Israel invective and conspiracy. In essence, Professor Stein subscribes to every anti-Semitic calumny spewed by Israel’s harshest adversaries.
While her odious views certainly cannot be attributed to her husband, they rightfully should have been a cause for alarm and raised many red flags. Indeed, Janiak peddles his wife’s anti-Israel work (such as her new book "Digital Militarism: Israel's Occupation in the Social Media Age") on his social media accounts, much the same way Sidney Blumenthal peddles Max Blumenthal’s anti-Semitic manifestos.
The pernicious views held by some current and former senior members of the Lerner School have carried over into policy as well. For example, Frontpage has learned through sources formerly affiliated with the school that Lerner declined to hang modern maps of Israel because it could be considered offensive. One parent reported that she first became aware of this in the spring of 2014 when her son came home from the school inquiring why the map of Israel “hurts people’s feelings.” According to the parent, the school principle explained to her in a meeting that indeed the modern map of Israel could offend other people, hurt their feelings and make them feel “unsafe.” In a subsequent January 2015 email communication to the school community, Head of School Allison Oakes wrote that although there were “Israel maps” in classroom spaces, citing specifically biblical maps, “[m]odern maps will be hung as our students learn about the modern state of Israel in the spring” after the administration and faculty debated over the map.
As Oakes explained,
Yes, there is debate about which maps will be hung and that is a debate that will take place amongst the administration and faculty in the next few months as we approach the study of the modern state of Israel.
The letter to the school community also stated that the conscious decision was made not to send out communications regarding Operation Protective Edge, Israel's response to a renewed barrage of Palestinian rocket attacks that took place in the summer of 2014. According to Oakes, this decision was made
so that my first communication on behalf of Lerner not be about Israel. Without members of the community knowing me or knowing my communication style, I did not want anyone reading into anything I wrote and drawing opinions without having greater context of who I am and what I stand for.
How the Lerner School can reconcile its stated goal of “assist[ing] all students in developing a positive Jewish identity and pride in their Jewish heritage” with the above-noted allegations remains unclear. To its credit, the Lerner School’s website features a rather pro-Israel piece on Lerner students' thoughts on Israel. Students who commented associated Israel with positive experiences and views. But the school’s featuring of this piece serves to add confusion rather than clarification and further underscores its rather schizophrenic nature. An email to the Lerner School requesting clarification on the BDS affiliation of some of its current and former faculty members, as well as the circumstances surrounding the removal of the map, was acknowledged by Head of School Oakes, but remains as of this writing substantively unanswered.