THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2023
Making a world we can live in: In our earlier post, we cited Chuck Schumer's guest essay in today's New York Times.
Early on in his essay, he cited an incident at a high school in Queens. Headline included, this is the passage in question:
Chuck Schumer: What American Jews Fear Most
Today, too many Americans are exploiting arguments against Israel and leaping toward a virulent antisemitism. The normalization and intensifying of this rise in hate is the danger many Jewish people fear most.
Since Oct. 7, Jewish-owned businesses that have nothing to do with Israel have been boycotted and vandalized. Jewish students on college campuses have been harassed and assaulted with alarming frequency. A Jewish high school teacher in Queens told me about being forced to hide in a locked office from student protesters who were demanding that she be fired because she attended a rally supporting Israel.
These are just a few examples, but they point to a troubling trend. Too often in Jewish history, legitimate criticism of Israeli policies or even older disputes over religious, economic and political issues have crossed over into something darker, into attacking Jewish people simply for being Jewish.
What happened last week at the Queens high school is an example of crossing that threshold. Walking out of school to march in support of Palestinians is completely legitimate. But forcing a Jewish teacher to hide because she had attended a rally in support of Israel is antisemitism, pure and simple.
Schumer's essay doesn't link to news reports about the incident in question. For that reason, it isn't entirely clear what incident he's citing.
That said, Tuesday morning's New York Times included a news report about an incident at New York City's Hillcrest High School.
Is that the incident to which Schumer refers? Here are the key parts of that news report, headline included:
After Students Target Pro-Israel Teacher, Officials Try to Quell Outrage
New York City officials are investigating after hundreds of Queens high school students protested against a pro-Israel teacher, who was moved to another part of the building during the demonstration, the schools chancellor said Monday.
The recent episode at Hillcrest High School erupted after the teacher, who is Jewish, had changed a social media profile photo to an image of her holding up an “I Stand With Israel” sign, the chancellor, David C. Banks, said. On Nov. 20, as roughly 400 teenagers roamed the school in between class periods, the teacher was moved to a different floor, Mr. Banks said.
Mr. Banks said the teacher had been targeted for her backing of Israel and for “expressing her Jewish identity,” adding that it was “completely unacceptable.”
Still, the chancellor also called for a measure of understanding, saying the war was a “very visceral and emotional issue” at Hillcrest, where about 30 percent of students are Muslim. “They feel a kindred spirit with the folks of the Palestinian community,” Mr. Banks said, adding that the “notion that these kids are radicalized” was irresponsible.
Within hours of first reports of the incident last week, Mayor Eric Adams condemned the episode as a “vile show of antisemitism.” Melinda Katz, the borough’s district attorney and a Hillcrest alumna, said it “both angers me and breaks my heart to see young people using violence to try to silence” supporters of Israel. And one Republican city councilwoman called for Hillcrest to “be shut down pending a full and thorough investigation.”
The incident at Hillcrest was a stark example of just how fraught the fallout from the war has been for school communities across the nation.
Schumer's account doesn't perfectly match those facts. Still, we assume that this may be the incident to which his essay refers.
The incident at Hillcrest High got plenty of attention on Fox. We're not saying it shouldn't have. We'd like to see some journalists interview some of those students.
In our view, the incident might raise a point of concern. In part, it may illustrate an important fact—"diversity" can be very challenging, especially within the global context.
Senator Schumer drew a conclusion about what those Hillcrest students did. He assumed that they were exhibiting antisemitism, perhaps even a "virulent" form of same.
We don't know how to evaluate that assumption. It may be true for some of the students, not true for others. Young people often do very dumb things. So do older people.
Diversity can be hard! That's especially true in the global cultural context, as an earlier incident at MIT might suggest or illustrate. (We hope to get to it later.)
Given the way we humans are wired, diversity can be challenging! We tend to respond poorly to difference. We've been that way for a long time.
That said, and as the iconic song goes—we have to learn how "to make a world we can live in."
We don't have to make a world some particular group can live in. We have to learn to make a world all sorts of groups can live in.
Were those Hillcrest students displaying antisemitism? Was it wise for Schumer to make that assumption, then say it?
Chuck Schumer is a good, decent person. At this point in human history, we're called to learn how to build a world which all kinds of people can live in.