Turning a blind eye to brutality

Turning a blind eye to brutality

In response to the brutality, some schools go bland, while federations work together

Dov Ben-Shimon of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ
Dov Ben-Shimon of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ

As this last brutal week has made clear, although most people react to unimaginably medieval murders with horror and instinctively feel great sympathy for the victims, that’s not universally true.

Sometimes the need to assume that such sympathy, were it to become visible, would enrage part of a semi-public figure’s constituency leads that person — say, for argument’s sake, a public school superintendent — to placate proactively. To kneecap the sympathy. To both-sides something to which there is only one side.

Because it is wrong, unequivocally wrong, to murder babies. (And their older siblings, and their parents, and their great-grandparents, but we gotta start somewhere.)

Some school superintendents across the northern part of New Jersey, in the catchment areas covered by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, have put out statements of deep concern for something they cannot bring themselves to mention.

Here, for example, is the first paragraph of a note from Teaneck’s superintendent, Dr. André D. Spencer.

“In the midst of the latest incidence in the cycle of violence in the Middle East, we recognize the fear, grief, and pain that our community is experiencing. Therefore, we want to express a strong sense of compassion for our communities. The unfortunate situation in the Middle East has far-reaching implications on many of our community members, and for this reason, we want to let our families know that Teaneck Public Schools stands ready to support.”

What might that unfortunate situation have been? Hamayvin yavin, perhaps? If you know, you know.

Then there’s a note from Millburn’s superintendent, Dr. Christine Burton:

“Over the weekend, the world was shaken by the devastating news of the attacks in the Middle East. As a close-knit school community, we want to express our deepest sympathies to our families affected by these events. We are aware that many of our students have strong connections to the regions impacted by these attacks, and our thoughts and prayers are with each and every one of you during these challenging times. Our hearts go out to all the families living in the war zones, and we sincerely hope for a swift resolution to the conflict.”

Again, the slaughterers and the slaughtered go unnamed.

In these cases, which are representative of many others, local residents, including local rabbis and the local federations, wrote polite but strong letters, and the superintendents issued careful notes that did not mention their initial failures but at least acknowledged that the victims were Jews.

Dov Ben-Shimon of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ

“Their lack of backbone is deeply disturbing,” Jason Shames, JFNNJ’s CEO, said.

As Mr. Shames wrote in a letter to Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers, about ongoing issues involving Students for Justice in Palestine’s aggression toward Jewish students, as well as the school’s response to the invasion, “There is NO moral equivalency between the two people,” Israelis and Hamas. “Absolutely none…. There is a time to draw the line, take a stand, and be a leader. This is that time.”

President Joe Biden has been clear and passionate in his support of Israel, Mr. Shames said; so have the members of his administration and many other politicians, even in this deeply divided country.

“I’m proud that we’ve had such moral clarity from many of our elected officials,” MetroWest’s CEO, Dov Ben-Shimon, agreed. “I was deeply proud to hear our president, our governor, and senators and Congress members speak clearly and firmly, with no equivocation, on the evil nature of what Hamas did.”

So what’s holding back school leadership?

There are about 90 school districts in Bergen County alone, Alana Burman, the head of the North Jersey Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, said. The organization’s catchment area includes Hudson and part of Passaic counties too, so there are well over 100 districts. There is no one template for responses — not every school district says anything — and they vary, but mealy-mouthedness is a recurrent feature.

She is most offended by the letter from the president of William Patterson College, Richard J. Helldobler, Ph.D.

“The death of any human is tragic, and the destruction of communities is equally troublesome,” Dr. Helldobler wrote. “As your President, I am conflicted on an appropriate response that embraces all the complexities and oppositional views of various populations, who are equally important parts of our diverse community. This is where our work to be diverse and inclusive is challenging and yet vital to who we are as a community.”

Later in his note, Dr. Helldobler adds that “we must be mindful in our responses.”

“It is deeply disturbing,” Linda Scherzer, who directs the JCRC in MetroWest, said.

The federation had been working with at least one school district in response to an antisemitic incident last spring, she said; that work led to a discussion about the bland note to parents.

“It is painful, hurtful, unacceptable — but thanks to local clergy and federation leaders who were involved, we made the case for why the statement had to be revised and reissued,” she said.

“I understand why people with no stake in what happened in Israel aren’t as upset about it as we are — but if you look at it and can’t see the barbarity, there is something very wrong going on.”

But there is some good news coming from the two federations, whose executive directors, Mr. Shames and Mr. Ben-Shimon, echo what we’ve heard from Israelis. They say that divisions internal to the Jewish community are healing, walls are coming down, the community is knitting itself together.

“A Jew is a Jew, no matter where you live or who you are,” Mr. Shames said.

“This has been a terrible week, but it also has brought out the best of humanity,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said. “I have been uplifted by the humanity and the decency of so many of our friends and community partners, and especially by the coming together of our community in so many unity rallies and gatherings and solidarity demonstrations, which have brought us together and given us hope.”

Both federations have sister cities in Israel. North Jersey’s is Nahariya; MetroWest’s include Ofakim/Merchavim, which was directly hit by terrorists.

“Our friends at the Jewish Federation of North Jersey gave us an allocation of $50,000 for Ofakim,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said.

“I’ve cried many times this week — I had friends who were killed — it’s been a horrible week. But seeing our friends from the Northern New Jersey federation, and seeing our Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, and other partners stand with us, united for Israel, and helping those who need us most — that also has made me cry, and in a very different, more uplifting way.”

Deciding to allocate $50,000 to MetroWest for Ofakim was easy, Mr. Shames said; in fact, the decision was made the day of the attack. “When I heard about what was going on in Ofakim, the barbaric carnage, we felt without any question that we had to do something. The decision was unanimous. As soon as I told Dan” — that’s Dan Schlufman, the federation’s president — “he agreed.

“This wasn’t just MetroWest’s responsibility,” Mr. Shames said. “If we say that we’re all going to stand together, then we’re really all going to stand together. That’s what we’re doing.”

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