Firing of Anti-Zionist Hebrew School Teacher

This JTA article was brought to TTN’s attention a few weeks ago: “A Jewish educator sues a New York-area synagogue, saying she was fired for espousing anti-Zionist beliefs.”  

Shortly before being hired to teach at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, Jessie Sander (pictured) blogged against Zionism in the wake of the Gaza war.  (A nuanced liberal Zionism, which criticizes, agonizes over and empathizes with Israel, is preached from WRT’s pulpit.)  Both the moral and legal arguments are interesting.  A legal opinion from the American Jewish Committee argues against the teacher’s claim that she had the right to express her views on her own time; the AJC person argues that she has no case because she undermines part of the Reform temple’s Zionist “mission.”

This issue was explored in a NY Times article, dated Feb. 3, 2022, under the somewhat misleading headline, “A Jewish Teacher Criticized Israel. She Was Fired.”  An open letter signed by 78 Jewish writers, activists and academics — including such prominent names as Peter Beinart, Daniel Boyarin, Hasia Diner, and Shaul Magid — was issued in support of Ms. Sander.  

TTN’s editor, Ralph Seliger, reflects on this affair as follows:

I was sympathetic to her predicament (although not to her views); I reasoned that she should have a right to express herself, as long as she doesn’t attempt to indoctrinate her pupils.  But then I read the blog post that got her into trouble, hyper-linked within Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s Feb. 17th opinion piece, “Peter Beinart Is Wrong: Israel Haters Should Not Be Synagogue Educators,” published in Haaretz.  His article’s subhead sums it up: “When a Scarsdale, N.Y. synagogue fired an educator who accused Israel of genocide and U.S. Jews of enabling violent racism at home, Beinart and others rushed to her defense. What on earth were they thinking?”

This is most of her screed (abridged to economize on space), posted on May 20, 2021, in the name of a group calling itself “Making Mensches”: 

. . .  We believe our role as white American Jews is to resist the American-israeli military-industrial complex and the ways in which American Jewish support for israel has enabled the genocide in Palestine to continue. Making Mensches believes in the right of Palestinian self-determination and rejects the Zionist claim to the land of Palestine.

. . .  Making Mensches stands by the Jewish ideals of tikkun olam (repairing the world), the ethics laid out in pirkei avottzedakah (justice), and emet (truth). These Jewish ideals, amongst many others, are what drive our passion for liberation. The Jewish struggle throughout history has always been for liberation. The liberation of Palestine is tied into the struggle for Jewish liberation everywhere. 

. . .  Zionism is not equivalent to, or a necessary component of, Jewish identity.  To conflate Zionism and Judaism is not only inaccurate but dangerous; if we do not understand the difference between settler colonialism and religion, we run the risk of spreading deeply antisemitic narratives about the nature of Judaism.  . . .  The notion that israel must exist in order to prevent another Holocaust is predicated on the belief that eradicating global antisemitism is such an unattainable goal that we cannot exist elsewhere safely. We believe that this is a false Zionist narrative perpetuated by those who wish to conflate an issue of settler colonialism with religious freedom.  . . . No matter how difficult it is, the struggle towards dismantling white supremacy is one that makes the world safer for all marginalized groups. Antisemitism (and white supremacy) do not disappear with the existence of israel — israel only placates us against revolution by giving Jewish people hope that there is a safe haven from antisemitism while turning us away from the struggle all marginalized groups must fight together.

As American Jews, we demand an end to American funding of Palestinian genocide.  . . . israel has also acted as a funnel for additional tax dollars to go back into the American military-industrial complex. This military-industrial complex includes funding of police forces across the nation, . . .  The struggle against police violence and the struggle against israeli settler-colonial violence are connected. israel actively trains the actors of our military state to enact violence against our Black and Brown siblings. It has been well-established that the israeli Defense Force (IDF) trains the New York Police Department (NYPD) and many other police forces across the United States.  . . .  We cannot engage in critiques of police violence in the United States without actively reflecting on israeli settler-colonial violence used to subjugate Palestinians.  . . .

Notice all the tropes: “israel” with a lowercase i to deny it even grammatical dignity, “settler-colonialism,” “genocide,” training American police “to enact violence” against people of color (this last is arguably an incitement in itself against Jews).  This is a hateful, bombastic indictment of a nation, not a well-reasoned critique of policies.  Not every point raised is untrue — e.g., Zionism is not “a necessary component of Jewish identity,” and because of the way US aid is structured, “tax dollars [do] go back into the American military-industrial complex.”  If this post were reasonably phrased and not a hateful ideological rant, I for one, and perhaps even the synagogue that hired her, might be more supportive.  

The following is a legal note from Prof. Steven Lubet of  Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law:

On the legal side, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled (here and here) that the “ministerial exception” to employment law applies to teachers, meaning that the “First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves” matters of who can and cannot occupy teaching and leadership positions. In other words, a synagogue has the same right to adhere to a “Zionist mission” that Sander claims to be “recreationally” anti-Zionist. The fact that she hasn’t tried to “indoctrinate her pupils,” and has even promised not to, is irrelevant for three reasons: (1) WRT doesn’t have to wait for an adverse incident before acting on its mission; (2) it is evident that Sander cannot promote the Zionist mission, even if she agrees to keep mum about it at work; and (3) her students may well come across her continued anti-Zionist blogging, which of course is her First Amendment right, which itself would undermine WRT’s mission.

Unless there are facts beyond the news report, the legal case is so close to frivolous that one must wonder about its motivation.

The moral issue is of course quite different. I fully understand the argument that synagogues must be open to “diverse opinions on Israel.” I agree with the pull-quote from the open letter that “Commitment to Palestinian justice is fully consistent with the Jewish values of, and commitment to, pursuing justice that they learned in Hebrew school and from their families.”

But that is an issue that should be resolved – and it ultimately will be resolved – within the Jewish community. Bringing it into court is aggressive, disrespectful, damaging, and suggests an ulterior motive beyond securing a part-time job.