The War on Free Speech Comes to High School

A New York private school recently fired a teacher with pro-Palestine views who had been targeted by the right.

Mairav Zonszein
January 24, 2020
The Tate Library at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. Photo courtesy of Architecture Research Office

ON JANUARY 9TH, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School—an elite private school in the Bronx known for its diversity and progressive values—fired JB Brager, a 31-year-old history teacher. Brager, who is Jewish, had expressed views on Twitter that were anti-Zionist and in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Brager’s firing appears to be the latest instance in a trend, trickling down from colleges to high schools, in which educators whose politics challenge the mainstream Zionist narrative about Israel are punished for their political views.

“To me, what makes a good teacher is making clear my views and helping my students argue against me,” Brager (who uses they/them pronouns) tells me, in their first comments to a reporter since being fired. “I feel strongly that one should be able to teach students of all different political belief systems, but that doesn’t mean I have to change my beliefs.”

Brager’s dismissal followed a series of tweets they posted in November regarding a recent incident involving a speaker at a school assembly. Kayum Ahmed, an adjunct law professor at Columbia University and a division director at Open Society Foundations, gave a talk at Fieldston about apartheid South Africa. In response to a question from a student, Ahmed discussed the phenomenon of victims becoming perpetrators. In a video of the talk posted by the right-wing Washington Free Beacon, which has played a key role in drawing national attention to this incident, Ahmed said that “the Jews suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel. Today they perpetuate violence against the Palestinians that are unthinkable . . . the victims of the Holocaust and violence have become perpetrators of injustice against Palestinians.”

The Free Beacon and Tablet reported that some parents took issue with the comments. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), told the Free Beacon, “To blame the victim in this manner was really outrageous and these virulent views—saying that Jews who escaped the Holocaust are now the perpetrators of injustice—has [sic] no place in our society and certainly not in our schools where we’re educating young people.” (The ADL did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

The Fieldston administration sent out a letter to parents deeming Ahmed’s comments “deeply hurtful” and suggesting that they were antisemitic. “We know that Anti-Semitism, alongside many other forms of bigotry, is resurgent in America and in the world today,” the letter read. “ECFS [the Ethical Culture Fieldston School] vehemently opposes anti-Jewish words, deeds, and sentiment. We do not accept them in our community.” According to the New York Times, Fieldston had asked Ahmed for clarification on his remarks, and he responded that he did not believe he had said anything antisemitic and that he is “deeply opposed to antisemitism.” The Fieldston administration’s letter did not include any information about these later statements from Ahmed.

Following the letter, Brager posted several tweets expressing indignation with the school’s handling of the situation, some of which have since been deleted. “When institutions of ‘learning’ bow to political pressure to disavow historical reality, what can educators do within that institution?” wrote Brager. They added, “I have never been more disappointed in my employer than I am today and I have never been closer to quitting.” They also tweeted, “I support BDS (boycotts, divestments, sanctions) and Palestinian sovereignty, and I have for my entire life” and “I refuse to ‘reaffirm the value’ of ethnonationalist settler colonialism.” (The latter tweet references the language of Fieldston’s letter, which contained this line: “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.) Later, in December, Brager also tweeted, “Making latkes tonight for my birthday and channukah, text me if you want to come over, no Zionists.” 

In December, Tablet reported on some of Brager’s tweets in their coverage of the assembly. Outrage continued to build, and on January 8th—the day before Brager’s dismissal—Democratic US Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Max Rose of New York sent a letter to Fieldston condemning Ahmed’s remarks. On the day that Brager was fired, the Free Beacon devoted an entire article to their tweets and other social media posts, which they reported “have caught the attention of Fieldston students and parents.” The next day, the Free Beacon took credit for Brager’s firing. (Yad Yamin—“right hand”—a group that calls itself a “non-partisan, non-political idea that organizes Jews, and our allies, to vehemently combat anti-Semitism in all its forms”—also took credit for Brager’s firing on Facebook because of a phone-in campaign they organized complaining about Brager, whom they describe as a “Jew hater.”)

It is unclear why the school waited until almost two months after Brager’s tweets about Fieldston’s response to Ahmed’s remarks to fire Brager, who reached a settlement with the school last week, the terms of which are confidential. Some in the Fieldston community assume that Brager’s dismissal was triggered by a gesture they made at an assembly held on the day they were fired. 

The assembly featured Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Emanu-El, both prominent Reform synagogues in Manhattan, whom Fieldston invited to speak about the resurgence of antisemitism in the United States. (The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue later tweeted that the two rabbis were there “to present the mainstream Jewish perspective on the recent explosion of anti-Semitism in our country and mount a defense of Zionism.”) The event was organized as a response to the blowback from Ahmed’s comments, amid the recent uptick in antisemitic violence in the New York area. The two rabbis were added to programming the school already had in place as part of its “anti-bias Community Curriculum,” introduced last year.

In a video filmed by a student that has been circulating widely among students and parents, Brager is seen from behind making an annoyed gesture with their fingers at the back of the room during the rabbis' speech. While the New York Times and the Free Beacon reported that Brager gave the middle finger, the nature of the gesture is not clear from the video. Brager says they don’t remember what gesture they made, but that the “words [of the rabbi who was speaking] were more obscene than my gesture, whether I pointed or waved and whatever finger it was.”

During his speech, Hirsch directly referred to the Ahmed controversy, saying that “to accuse Israelis of inflicting Nazi-like violence on others is morally grotesque.” (Comparing Israeli policy to Nazism, which Ahmed only arguably did, is one example of antisemitism offered by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism adopted by the State Department, which is also included in the executive order against antisemitism that Donald Trump signed last month.) Hirsch went on to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, attributing both to the left.  (One week after Brager’s dismissal, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Hirsch and Davidson in which they claim that “[a]nti-Israel activism has spread beyond the college campus and into the elementary and high school classroom” and note that Fieldston had fired a teacher—Brager—for “tweets demonizing Zionism.”)

It seems unlikely that Brager’s gesture or the Free Beacon’s article played a role in the school’s decision, given that, according to Brager, they were informed two days prior to the day of their firing that they were being investigated, and that the meeting itself at which they were fired had been scheduled the day before.

Fieldston, for its part, has not offered any information to clarify why Brager was fired. Since dismissal agreements typically include non-disparagement clauses, it is practically impossible to get any details about the specifics of Brager’s dismissal. Fieldston faculty has been instructed not to speak publicly on the matter, and the administration refuses to comment on record about the incident, beyond a statement issued by the head of the school, Jessica Bagby, which was sent to alumni on January 14th. Bagby wrote: “with regard to ECFS personnel matters, out of respect for the privacy of our faculty and staff, we do not comment on internal personnel decisions. We can reaffirm, however, that the School does not tolerate hurtful, offensive, or exclusionary content or comments from any member of the community. Students, parents, employees, and other members of our community all face consequences for misbehavior of this nature.”

In the wake of Brager’s dismissal, over 700 Fieldston alumni, parents, educators, and community leaders have signed a letter to Fieldston trustees condemning the administration for caving to pressure from “a small set of conservative parents, who in turn were supported by smear attacks on JB in the right-wing press,” and calling for Brager to be reinstated. Two days after the dismissal, Gina Apostol, a novelist and English teacher at Fieldston, tweeted, “Like JB, I support BDS: sanctions against Israel to restore human rights to Palestinians. That isn't anti-semitic nor anti-Israel.” Apostol also started a GoFundMe campaign in support of Brager, who is not entitled to severance because they worked at Fieldston for only 1.5 years, less than the three years required for union membership.

“They are an excellent educator,” one Jewish parent, whose child is currently a student at Fieldston and studied with Brager last year, tells me. “They are fair and thoughtful, and they encourage their students to see things from a multitude of perspectives.” This parent is also concerned about the wider intellectual climate at Fieldston right now. “The school is really targeting people that don’t stand with the administration,” she says, citing Brager’s efforts to diversify the curriculum.

Since being hired in 2018, Brager—whose areas of academic expertise include the history of genocide and settler colonialism, as well as queer and feminist studies—had taught courses on US history and the two World Wars to 10th graders, as well as a sex education class to 7th graders. They were slated to teach four new classes this year: a course on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, a course on Reconstruction, a course on Indigneous studies, and a course on queer history (the first of its kind at the school). Brager says they had always been open in the classroom about their politics, and that their relationships with students and other faculty members had been very positive. “This seems to be coming from people that I don’t know and who don’t know me,” they say.

FIELDSTON WAS FOUNDED in the late 19th century by Felix Adler, a German Jewish immigrant, with the mission of studying and practicing ethics. Its alumni include many famous figures in the media and entertainment industries, such as Diane Arbus, Sofia Coppola, Sean Lennon, Jane Mayer, and Barbara Walters. Annual tuition is now over $50,000, but the school provides millions in financial aid each year. Of its 1,200 students from pre-K through 12th grade, 30% are nonwhite, and there is a large Jewish student population. 

Last year, the student group Students of Color Matter staged lock-ins demanding that the school respond better to racism and, among other things, develop a mandatory black studies course. Bagby, the head of the school, was herself embroiled in a controversy a few years ago in which she was accused of antisemitism for claiming privately that some “Jewish” and “Zionist” parents of students had qualms with the combating racism program, according to a report in the New York Times. (Neither Bagby nor the principal, Nigel Furlonge, are Jewish, but many Fieldston parents, alumni, and donors are.) 

As Nancy Kricorian—an author, former Code Pink staffer, and parent of two recent Fieldston graduates—told the Riverdale Press, “Fieldston’s administration is afraid — as are many school administrations — of being accused of anti-Semitism. There are real and terrifying acts of hatred and violence being perpetrated against Jewish people, but a Jewish teacher’s anti-Zionist opinions and social media posts are not anti-Semitism.”

In an email sent to alumni after Brager was fired, Fieldston claims to be “in conversations with a number of prospective partners” regarding antisemitism education at the school, listing among them the ADL and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) as well as the left-wing group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), which rejects the equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. 

However, according to Leo Ferguson, the movement-building organizer at JFREJ and co-author of the resource “Understanding Antisemitism,” the school has not reached out to them since this incident. Ferguson notes that last year, a parent group at Fieldston inquired about JFREJ doing a training, but nothing came of it. Ferguson also says that JFREJ is “appalled” by Brager’s firing. “We think it sets a terrible precedent and chilling for free speech.” 

Brager is worried about the implications their firing will have for other educational institutions. “I am particularly concerned about the conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism, effectively shutting down real conversations about Palestinian rights and Israeli ethnonationalism,” they say. “For students of Jewish history to not be exposed to the long and rich history of leftist, even anti-Zionist Jewish culture and politics is a tragic erasure. For students to learn about Indigenous rights and settler colonialism without confronting Israel as a settler colony is an incomplete picture of history. For students to learn about the Holocaust without considering the Nakba is to say that history ended in 1945.”

According to Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal—an organization providing legal support and resources to people who are censored or penalized for their advocacy of Palestinian rights—there has been a significant rise in incidents targeting pro-Palestinian speech in K-12 education since 2018. The spreading of this phenomenon, which has until recently mostly taken place on college campuses, into the realm of secondary education is especially concerning considering that high school teachers—particularly at private schools—often have fewer protections than tenured university professors.

“There is a real McCarthyite atmosphere when it comes to talking about Palestine,” Sainath says. “Teachers shouldn’t be scared of losing their jobs for criticizing Israel or simply teaching about Palestinian human rights. This is not an environment that’s conducive to learning.” Palestine Legal says it responded to 247 incidents of suppression of US-based Palestine advocacy in 2019—the great majority of them targeting college students and professors. Between January 1st, 2014, and December 31st, 2019, a total of 1,494 incidents of this kind were reported to Palestine Legal.

Palestine Legal is currently advising Jon Cohen, a Queens public school educator who was asked to stop wearing a Jewish Voice for Peace shirt and to remove items supportive of Palestinian rights (including a photograph of the late pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, a postcard-sized handmade Palestinian flag, and a small strip of paper that read “free Palestine”) from his workspace last May. Other instances in recent years include the 2017 firing of two teachers at the Friends’ Central School, a Quaker school near Philadelphia, for inviting a Palestinian professor to speak at the school. In 2018, some parents at the Beacon School in Manhattan were outraged when students were asked to pause for a moment of silence for the 62 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in a single day on May 15th, 2018, prompting the principal to apologize

That same spring, Joel Doerfler, a Fieldston alumnus, resigned in protest from another elite private school in the Bronx—Riverdale Country School—after a course he taught on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was canceled, reportedly as a result of parental outrage caused by his highlighting Israel’s killing of Palestinians in Gaza by hanging a newspaper clipping about it on his office door.

“There is only one subject that is outside the pale and it’s Israel,” says Doerfler, who is Jewish and who worked as a teacher for over 40 years and is now retired.  “I wouldn’t dismiss this as the work of a tiny handful. I think this is something that is splitting the Jewish community everywhere . . . It’s a powerful force because it’s organized, and it’s got this whole institutional infrastructure and zillions of dollars and lots of willing media outlets,” Doerfler says, noting that when parents were upset with his politics, they brought in the AJC to help coordinate efforts. “We are dealing with the most privileged parents on the globe,” says Doerfler. “They have wealth, they have connections. When they organize and in my case with the benefit of the AJC, the administration listens.” Doerfler believes that Brager is the latest victim of a “vicious and dangerous assault on free speech and academic independence.” 

THE FACT THAT so many of these incidents are taking place in schools that pride themselves on diversity and progressive values is a testament to how successful the pro-Israel network—from right-wing Jewish organizations and wealthy donors, to conservative media outlets and politicians—has been at suppressing anti-Zionists and BDS advocates in the American education system. Their efforts have resulted in the exclusion of Palestinian narratives from curricula and the omission of basic historical and current facts about Israel’s role in displacement, occupation, and systematic inequality and violence.

Brager’s firing is part of a national push to restrict free speech about Israel by conflating antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and by framing the fight against antisemitism as inseparable from the promotion of Zionism. This push is increasingly gaining traction in the US Congress. A House bill introduced this month proposes that one of the ways to combat antisemitism is to “teach about the vital and historic importance of the Jewish State of Israel.” 

Brager sees these efforts as counterproductive to critical thought. “Zionists are afraid of even neutral histories, much less anti-Zionist views, being presented to young Jewish people,” they say, “because when young Jews are asked to think critically about Zionism, many of them begin to question the dogmatic belief system presented to them particularly by faith leaders.” 

In Israel, meanwhile, a left-wing civics teacher in Rishon Letzion was fired this month for expressing his opposition to Israel’s military operations to his students. The efforts to silence left-wing views on Israel/Palestine are international, and will require international efforts to counteract.

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli American journalist and commentator who has covered Israeli politics and US foreign policy for over a decade. She is a founding editor of +972 Magazine, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The Columbia Journalism Review, and more. She is currently senior analyst on Israel/Palestine with the International Crisis Group.