I grew up in Tenafly in the ‘80s and ‘90s. While I did not attend the public school system, but rather a local day school, I had only good experiences, making friends in little league, fortunate to be coached by the great Ray Rioux, befriended by his son, my teammate Nick, Not a Jew. I still remember those days fondly.
Today I lease office space in Tenafly for my legal practice. I am raising my children in nearby Englewood where I am grateful to assist coaching their little league team, a remarkable (if a bit rambunctious) and diverse group of 6-8-year-old boys and girls. We attend synagogue right on the Tenafly Englewood border, and we often enjoy Tenafly-sponsored events including the annual outdoor concerts on the lawn.
My wife is a fifth grade day school teacher (who I might add has been working tirelessly with her colleagues to achieve in-person learning every day this school year for my children among many others, making her a true COVID hero).
And while many facts remain to come to light in the recent incident involving a fifth grader at the Maugham School in Tenafly, I can tell you one thing for sure. It doesn’t require context for me to be certain my wife would not have approved a student’s choice to write about Hitler’s “accomplishments” for a character development project, inviting the student to come in dressed in Hitler attire, or hang up such a project on the wall stating in the student’s best Hitler voice, “I was pretty great, wasn’t I?” She might’ve broached the issue with the family and with the school administration, and had a dialogue arriving at an educational moment.
Maybe it is because I am a lawyer, but I am particularly sensitive to any suppression of First Amendment rights. Particularly a believer in Justice Brandeis’ adage that sunlight is the best disinfectant, I fully support forums and platforms that tolerate (within reason) even the most ignorant and bigoted of voices. I’m all for learning about the most grotesque figures of history. But that does not translate to supporting an elementary school project celebrating Hitler, nor excuse what appears to be a series of poor decisions made by the many administrators, faculty and residents standing behind this decision.
At a time when we are consistently taught to silence any sentiments that might be “triggering” or otherwise perceived as offensive to any group, it turns out the 21st-century “anti-racism” movement is all a sham. I have for some time expressed concern with the dangers of a world where decisions are increasingly driven by an identity politics “equity”-based platform. Even more than the recent spikes in antisemitism, both locally and across the U.S., the clear lack of definitive condemnation of such incidents by leaders of various communities is a convincing rebuke of identity politics.
Rather than teaching our children to be truly color blind, and rather than leading by example with clear and unambiguous statements of condemnation, rather than making this a learning moment, the reactions, or lack thereof, to the recent Maugham school incident expose a double standard. Some of the rhetoric might make you think that today’s progressive leaders think that all lives matter, but they only speak up when it’s good for business. Whether it be an incident in Tenafly, or Palestinian-Israeli conflict driven antisemitism, condemning antisemitism just isn’t good for business. Talk, it turns out, is cheap.
And progressive school curricula teach our children to see themselves as either victims or perpetrators, as opposed to just a bunch of kids who happen to have differences, whether it be skin color or otherwise. On our little league team we don’t hold up signs saying we’re “diverse.” We don’t count how many people we have from different ethnicities or genders, etc. We just play ball.
I have always been resistant to prematurely “cry anti-Semitism.” When I was a younger adult I was often of the “it’s most likely paranoia” ilk. But, with time, all Jews eventually learn it’s not your paranoia. Antisemitism has persisted and will persist. This isn’t the place to go into the reasons for it. But it is the place and the time to say: This is unacceptable, the decisions made in Tenafly were and remain unacceptable. The desire to try to sweep these issues under the rug (whether out of fear, protection or worse) are unacceptable. We Jews may be told to stop playing the victim card. And that’s true, don’t play the victim, because, unless it’s good for business, there will be no pity. And there is no benefit to pity anyway.
So what is a good outcome here? It’s not more sensitivity training or lawn signs. A wake-up call though, maybe:
Jews cannot be afraid or ashamed or complacent. We must not expect antisemitism to fade with deescalated Middle East conflicts or the end of the “colonialist Zionist project” as some would assert. We must not expect antisemitism to disappear with enlightened 21st-century progressive anti-racism thinking. We must be vigilant. We must be self reliant. We must be proud. We must stand up for ourselves. We must stand up for all victims of bigotry, hatred and oppression. Yes, we can oppose racism, sexism and other ‘isms and still stand up and protect our right to live freely and proudly as Jews.
Facts in Tenafly remain to come to light. But the key facts I understand to be relevant: A student chose to celebrate Hitler. A teacher thought this was okay. A school system has chosen to stand behind this. Many will choose to remain silent. We Jews must choose to stand up for ourselves and for one another.
Joshua Tenzer is an attorney at Tenzer and Lunin LLP where he primarily represents health care providers. He lives in Englewood with his wife and two sons.