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Pride and Prejudice at Fieldston

An elite New York private school, founded by Jews, is rocked by allegations of systemic anti-Semitism

Sean Cooper
December 18, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

On Thursday, Nov. 21, a week before Thanksgiving, 500 high school students settled into their seats in the auditorium of the Fieldston School’s main campus, which sprawls over 18 leafy, manicured acres in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, to learn about apartheid. The invited speaker was Kayum Ahmed, an employee of the Open Society Foundations and adjunct faculty member at Columbia University Law School.

Ahmed’s initial presentation at Fieldston went off without a hitch, according to multiple people who attended the talk. But then came the question and answer period. In a video of his response to a student’s query about South Africa, Ahmed explained his theory of patterns of trauma and oppression, and connected them to the experience of Jews during the Holocaust.

“Xenophobic attacks are a shameful part of South African history, but in some ways it reflects the fluidity between those who are victims becoming perpetrators,” Ahmed told the Fieldston students and faculty. “I use the same example in talking about the Holocaust. That Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel today—they perpetuate violence against Palestinians that [is] unthinkable,” he opined.*

Ahmed’s comment sent a jolt through the room, students who were present there told Tablet, yet no one present questioned Ahmed’s assertion that survivors of the Holocaust had metabolized the trauma of their own mass murder to inflict “unthinkable” violence on Palestinians. Jewish parents at Fieldston who heard about Ahmed’s remarks were shaken and outraged, texting in chat circles and even threatening, privately, to withdraw their children from the school. A video clip of Ahmed’s presentation began to circulate amongst the school’s community, confirming the veracity of the recollections that upset students had shared with their parents.

As the crowd filtered out of the auditorium, some of the Jewish students present registered the moment with fear and confusion, according to multiple parents and others familiar with the event. In a classroom later that day, one Jewish student shared that Ahmed’s comment was upsetting. According to someone with direct knowledge of the situation, the teacher allegedly responded that there might be less concern about the Holocaust if more people were familiar with the genocides in other nations.

“If someone was coming to Fieldston to talk about apartheid and went off on a rant about the pea-sized brains of women who belong in a kitchen, or repeated racist tropes, or ranted about any form of homophobia or racism or sexism, immediately—immediately—teachers would have stood up and said, ‘that’s not how we feel, that’s not an idea we share,’” one parent told me. “And immediately after that a note would have gone out to every parent, condemning the remarks, offering counseling for those harmed and detailing education to prevent similar incidents in the future. And yet the students in that assembly saw none of that, because it’s part of the assumption at Fieldston that Jewish students are rich and white and thus privileged, so it doesn’t matter.”

Parents certainly had reason to be upset; some were the direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, and others had familial or emotional ties to Israel, a small country located in a region of the world where there is no shortage of states and radical fundamentalist groups that routinely echo Nazi calls for the extermination of Jewish populations. Moreover, the Ahmed event was only the latest in a series of what a number of Jewish parents saw as problematic experiences for Jews at the school, which they said had been escalating since 2015. Each of these episodes, they claim, had been downplayed or ignored by school leadership—a reaction that those Jewish parents found particularly galling when compared to the attention given to similar incidents of bias against students of color, or other groups identifying by gender or ethnicity.

Yet for precisely this reason, it also seems odd to be surprised by Ahmed’s remarks, or the lack of any school-wide reaction. The equation of Israelis with Nazis, and of Palestinians with their Jewish victims, is a common trope on the progressive left. And the larger frame in which such remarks are intended to resonate is widely shared and accepted across left-identifying spaces, from Ivy League history departments to the comparatively moderate editorial rooms at the Washington Post and digital outlets like Vox, all under the term “social justice.”

Like other elite private schools in New York, Fieldston began converting, both culturally as well as academically, to this worldview over the past decade. At this point, it seems fair to say that the conversion process is complete. The school begins organizing students into Affinity Groups by ethnicity and race in the third grade, and teachers openly use social media platforms to express solidarity with identitarian groups while espousing social justice movement-approved political stances that reinforce absolutist notions of right and wrong that have more in common with a Church catechism than they do with the foundational principles of a liberal education.

And it’s not subtle. In the wake of the event, J.B. Brager, one of the history department’s instructors who teaches a Holocaust elective, posted several public Twitter messages about the event and the resulting upset—none of which acknowledged the feelings of Jewish students or parents, or even the history of the Holocaust and the effects of trauma on its victims. Instead, Brager chose to use the moment to assert support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. “I refuse to ‘reaffirm the value’ of ethno-nationalist settler colonialism,” Brager wrote. “I support BDS and Palestinian sovereignty and I have for my entire adult life.”

Neither the head of school nor any official spokesperson would agree to be interviewed for this piece, or issue any comment at all. Tablet did speak to multiple members of both the school’s administration and faculty, all of whom expressed serious concerns about the environment at the school—and none of whom would agree to be quoted by name, out of fear of professional retaliation. Grievances have also been made to New York City-based anti-bias organizations. “We have heard complaints from parents over the years about Fieldston in terms of incidents of bias against Jewish students,” an Anti-Defamation League spokesman told Tablet this week. “At the school’s request, we conducted one anti-bias training for school safety officers back in 2017, but, unfortunately, we had not been able to get back into the school since that time.”

Tablet also interviewed the parents of more than two dozen Jewish students, past and present—all of whom, regardless of wealth or status, said that they were too frightened to be quoted by name. All said they specifically feared that public disclosure of their discomfort would cause retaliation by administrators and faculty—who they needed to write recommendations for their children’s college applications or transfer applications to other private high schools. The situation at Fieldston could be worse, they told me, though that perhaps depends on your perspective. “So far, no one’s throwing things at me and yelling ‘Dirty Jew,’ so it’s fine,” one parent wryly noted, in resignation. “But everyone else is going to leave.”

Not including fees and incidentals, the sticker price of a child’s kindergarten through high school education at Fieldston currently totals $636,000 – the cost of a luxury home in most areas of America, or spare maid’s room in Manhattan. Jessica Bagby, its current Head of School, is a graduate of Northwestern University and Columbia’s Teacher’s College whose annual compensation totals $803,000. For families of two or three children, the $1.2 million or $1.9 million investment in Fieldston has historically been seen as a safe bet. Steep table stakes collude with an intensely competitive admission process (at the kindergarten level, 87% of applicants are rejected; for aspiring high schoolers, the rejection rate hovers around 84%) to ensure the integrity of the Fieldston brand.

Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Riverdale. (Photo: Facebook)
Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Riverdale. (Photo: Facebook)

Founded in the 19th century by the son of a rabbi, Fieldston now sends as much as 15% or more of its graduating class each year to the Ivy League—the most recent senior class counted at least 10 students each destined for Brown, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell, with several more headed to Harvard and Princeton; the rest land at second-tier elite institutions like Wesleyan and Georgetown. The school achieves these results in part by touting a liberal progressive curriculum where the ethical and moral development of its students is held to be as important as academic achievement—an ethos that goes all the way back to the New York Jews who founded the school in the late 1800s because they were otherwise unwelcome in the city’s establishment institutions. Heavily subsidized for the poor from the outset, Fieldston continues to offer “diverse” applicants more aid than most elite private schools.

In conversation, Fieldston parents and alumni often elevate the diversity of the social milieu as the factor that sealed their faith in how the school could serve their family, proudly noting that roughly 40% of the school’s population is composed of students of color. Combined with the school’s roster of famous former students—film director Sofia Coppola, John and Yoko Ono’s son Sean, Diane Arbus, Jane Mayer, former executive editor of the New York Times Jill Abramson, and dozens of politicians, artists, and top-tier doctors, litigators, business owners, and corporate executives— Fieldston seemed to promise the kind of exclusivity one needn’t feel guilty about, and one that college admissions officers can fawn over.

Being clear about what these people are actually paying for is important to understanding the drama over anti-Semitism at the school. In their purchase of a Fieldston education, parents aren’t buying an assurance that their children will be able to read Latin, apply basic principles of physics, or score a standard deviation or two higher than the norm on calculus tests. In exchange for the financial support and volunteer board hours, what Fieldston and other New York private schools are rewarding their patrons with is safe passage to the American elite.

One Fieldston parent noted wryly: ‘So far, no one’s throwing things at me and yelling “Dirty Jew,” so it’s fine.’

But American society is changing, and with it so are the requirements for entry into its mythic meritocracy—which in many precincts now includes vowing fealty to a new worldview rooted in what proponents colloquially refer to as “social justice.” According to this ideology, “white people” are held to be responsible for the suffering of a myriad of groups whose identities are grounded in race, class, gender, sexual preference and other characteristics and which are in turn ultimately defined by their relationship to “power.” Together, these groups identify—or are encouraged to identify—as “the oppressed.”

Pitting a dramatic contest between “white people” and a broad coalition of “the oppressed” provides believers with a single, easy-to-understand standard—one rooted in the present, by which to judge social dynamics and power across a broad range of historical time periods and cultures. As such, it’s also, perhaps most importantly, a useful political organizing tool.

Many historical truths challenge the credibility of this worldview—among them the fact that “race” is a category that was invented by European racists in the mid-to-late 19th century; that gender roles and sexual dynamics of 21st-century America bear little relationship to those of 10th-century France or second-century Rome; that many of today’s “oppressed” population groups were themselves recently “oppressors” until bigger fish came along—but none perhaps as annoyingly as Jewish history.

Indeed, however much they may not want to, Jews directly complicate both the theory and practice of this new social movement. No group of people in human history has suffered more varieties of bias, ostracism, and group persecution than Jews, ranging from conquest and expulsion to forced conversion, the Inquisition, the invention of the ghetto, pogroms, and finally, the Holocaust. According to a historical test, Jews would therefore merit being placed at the far end of the sinned-against pole of the “social justice” binary, making them charter members of the coalition of “the oppressed.” At the same time, Jews—many of whom have white skin—have often achieved wildly disproportionate levels of intellectual and material success in Western cultures, which would seem to make them “white.”

This is why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key device—because it allows one to recategorize Jews or “Zionists” as “white people” from “Europe” who oppress the indigenous Palestinians, who are “people of color.” The number of historical contradictions, falsifications and glaring denialism involved in formulating even the preceding sentence is proof of the high stakes that are involved here; after all, most Israeli Jews are people of color from Middle Eastern countries, which were conquered by Arab Muslims; a gigantic mountain of textual, archeological, and genetic evidence confirms that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and specifically to Palestine; Jews were oppressed, ghettoized and eventually exterminated by Europeans and it is obscene to identify them with their murderers, etcetera, etcetera.

But facts are not important here. Put simply: The story of the Jews directly threatens to undermine the core theory of oppressed-versus-oppressors on which the entire social justice movement rests. There is no way for an institution to successfully embrace that ideology without, at best, ignoring or minimizing the Jewish experience—or, in more heated moments, erasing them entirely.

All of which is why, on the one hand, it is easy to understand the real pain of Jewish parents who feel that their children are being subjected to abuse of a kind that would immediately set off alarm bells if it was being directed at any other minority group. But on the other hand, it is also easy to imagine why Fieldston school administrators and faculty might have no sense that they are doing anything wrong. Indeed, since these ideas are now the gospel preached and encoded into the campus policy handbooks of America’s elite universities, which are the intended destinations for the school’s graduates, “social justice” is not just (or even) a set of personal and professional morals; it’s simply good business.

For many of Fieldston’s Jewish families, several told me, what distinguishes the problem at their school can be traced to the recently implemented Affinity Group program. Rolled out in 2015 as a new mandatory part of the curriculum, the Affinity groups asked parents of students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades to tell their children that they would need to select a group to join based on how that student defined their own identity. Over the course of the spring semester, parents were told, students would be segregated into groups based on a single selection from a set of options: African American or Black; Asian or Pacific Islander; Latino; Multiracial; White; or “Not Sure,” which consisted of “a cross-racial dialogue group” designed to make “your child feel more comfortable.”

During discussions held throughout the academic year, the children would be required to speak about what it meant to be a member of this particular group, and identify the inherent difficulties and anxieties of being, for example, Latino or Asian or White—ideas that would then be shared for examination by larger, mixed groups of students. These conversations would be moderated by staff and faculty, including classroom teachers and others such as a school nurse, who had less formal experience leading groups of students.

At the time, several families asked the school to add a Jewish affinity group; they acknowledged that no other religious group was offered, but argued that Jewishness should also be seen as a marker of ethnic and minority identity—not least because it has been seen so for centuries by oppressors of Jews. According to several parents, they were politely but firmly told that no such group would be forthcoming. “Many parents were aghast,” one parent with multiple children at Fieldston told me.

As part of Fieldston’s progressive curriculum, student groups and committees are allowed to organize events around ideas and general topics they feel passionately about, and the Affinity Group program made itself felt in the school through those structures.

As the Affinity Groups gathered, various Jewish parents told me, they observed a notable shift in the classroom experience their children were encountering, with recurring discussions around the notion of social privilege and how it was consolidated among white males with common socioeconomic backgrounds. According to one parent whose child was required to participate in one such event, upperclass students gathered a large circle of students in the gym, before instructing them that they were to take one step back if they answered affirmatively to their questions, and one step forward if they responded otherwise. The upper-class students then allegedly asked their peers if they had more than two bedrooms at home, if their family had a housekeeper, if they spoke English in the house, and if both of their parents were employed in full-time positions. The parent of the participating student was unnerved by the school-endorsed event, which struck them as an exercise designed to foster division and resentment.

As certain teachers remodeled their courses, Jewish students found that their concerns about anti-Semitism were met by fellow classmates who plainly suggested that, first, they should be considered white and privileged—and that second, as such, they could not be considered victims of discrimination.

It was a two-step that shocked and frightened certain Jewish parents—first erasing what they understood to be the history of Jewish exclusion, isolation and murder, while simultaneously confining Jews to the category of history’s not-good people.

It’s not hard to see why this felt threatening. The school had spent nearly a decade reorienting its curriculum and school culture so that it could be perceived as being on the right side of the fight against “white privilege.” Any such battle begins, necessarily, by isolating and identifying the enemy. What’s ironic here is that the targeted adversary—wealthy, paying millions in tuition, living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartments, bearers of elite professional degrees from Ivy League schools to which they hope to send their children—imagine themselves to be the clientele.

For Jewish parents, the result of these changes isn’t simply the sense of injustice at the prospect of their children becoming targets for social exclusion, bullying, and officially-sanctioned condemnation for holding or expressing normative in-group beliefs —like a belief in the uniqueness of the Holocaust, or that the State of Israel isn’t effusively evil. The lit match here was that “Jews” were nowhere to be found on the roster of oppressed groups.

It’s an absence that is quite deliberate, and yet, because many Jews don’t seem to quite get that, it results in furious and often unintentionally hilariously medieval-seeming debates, both within Jewish communities, and between Jews and “woke” believers about whether Jews with white skin or dark skin are in fact “white,” what degree of victim-privilege Jewish “whiteness” or non-“whiteness” should properly confer, how much possible Sephardic or Mizrahi blood can one reasonably lay claim to in order to join the good team, and so on.

During that same academic year, swastikas began appearing in Fieldston halls and classrooms. In what would become a recurring theme for some Jewish families, parents told me that they were taken aback when school leadership responded to the initial appearance of the swastikas with a presentation for students that foregrounded “the ancient history of the symbol,” as one parent who saw the presentation told me. There appeared to be no significant scrutiny of what the symbol meant after it had become the Nazi emblem, and there appeared to be no mention of its relation to the slaughter of millions of Jews, the parent said.

Facing an uproar over the presentation and the lack of any strong, community-wide condemnation of the incidents, the school sent out a second letter, shared with Tablet, that identified the swastika “as a hateful symbol of the Nazi genocide, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, fascism, and the destruction of European Jewry and other victims of the Nazi regime.”

This second missive was praised by the Jewish families who’d been shaken by the episode. But their confidence in the school’s stance against what they saw and felt as anti-Semitism dissipated as months went by without any of the school-mandated educational programming and supplemental instruction on anti-Semitism and Jewish hatred that they believed would have followed any other incident of racism or bigotry against a minority group. The leadership’s response fit a pattern of “sincere if limited efforts to address it, or proforma apologies, or simply indifference,” one faculty member told me.

Of course the problem then got worse. Toward the end of the 2017 spring semester, George Burns, who for almost two decades had been the principal of the grade school’s younger division and who had been an advocate of the Affinity Group program, abruptly left. His departure was as much of a surprise as the rumored reason behind it.

According to a report in the New York Times, Burns was discussing parent pushback to the Affinity Groups with the recently hired head of the school, Jessica Bagby, who allegedly then told him who she thought the program’s critics were: “It’s the Zionists—the Jews.” Burns later filed a report to the school’s human resources department; shortly after, Burns announced his retirement. “Mr. Burns had worked there for 18 years and had given no indication that he planned to retire,” the Times report said. “Almost no one believed that his departure was entirely voluntary.”

In an interview with the Times, Bagby disputed the account. “I said to him at the time, ʻWe have a problem in that some members of our community who identify themselves as Jewish, and some who even might identify themselves—self-identify—as Zionists, do not feel embraced by this program.’”

For some Jewish parents, it was a distinction without much difference. Bagby’s remarks had a perhaps unintentional but palpable edge. Since no one in the progressive cultural sphere has used the word “Zionist” as anything other than a curseword for at least a decade, her remarks implied to them that parents “who even might identify—self-identify—as Zionists” had themselves to blame for not being embraced by a program that would not and should not, in fact, embrace them.

Whatever the proper interpretation of Bagby’s remarks might be, the willingness of her school to take anti-Semitism seriously was about to be tested by national tragedy. On Oct. 27, 2018, 11 Jews were murdered during a religious service at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The night of the attack, the school sent out a note expressing sympathy for the victims, and horror at the attack.

But later that week, the school sent out another letter, shared with Tablet, which declared the committee’s dismay at the slayings while highlighting the positive reaction by the Muslim community of Pittsburgh—as though anti-Semitism was somehow a narrow detail in relations between Jews and Muslims. “[We are] heartsick for the state of our national dialogue and concerned for the safety of the vulnerable among us. We are also heartened by the clear voices of empathy across the spectrum of political views and overflowing acts of kindness, such as the pledge by the Muslim community of Pittsburgh to protect synagogues,” they wrote.

The letter then went on to explain that the theme of the year’s multicultural programming would be “Intersectionality,” with the first event a community day where guest speakers will explain “what Intersectionality means to them and what effect it has on their lives as they work toward equity and social justice.” The committee signed off by highlighting the Multicultural Committee’s recent progress, including a mention of the various faculty who over the summer participated in “anti-bias training for white educators.”

According to several Jewish parents who read the letter, they were stunned by the absence of the word “anti-Semitism”—the specific hatred against Jews that was the defining characteristic of the mass shooting.

“There was no mention of the murder of Jews,” one parent told me. “It talked about how the Muslim community really helped the Jewish community in a time of crisis. And you know, that’s great they did. I think that’s beautiful they helped. But what’s the point of including that in a letter that should be about a horrendous act of anti-Semitism?”

According to another parent, Fieldston ‘has a problem saying the words Jewish or Jew, and calling out hate against this community.’

The school’s disparate tone was made all the more stark several days later, when after a gunman killed one and left three injured in a shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, near San Diego, Fieldston distributed a community-wide letter that did not identify the victims as Jewish but instead as “Passover worshippers”—and which then contextualized the shooting among other recent events. “Hatred and religious violence across our globe at houses of worship since the 2015 murder of congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, should be unimaginable. Nevertheless, in just the last three months, since the horrific mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, this once unfathomable crime seems unrelenting in our news cycle.”

Though this letter mentioned the word “anti-Semitism,” according to multiple parents Bagby’s contextualizing of the anti-Semitic shooting with hate crimes against other religious denominations—an arbitrary selection stretching back to 2015, with nothing in common save for them being faiths other than Jewish—was one further example of the school’s apparent aversion to explicitly singling out violence or hatred against Jews as worthy of specific concern or condemnation.

Most recently, one parent noted that no email was sent last week, after a Black Hebrew Israelite gunman and his girlfriend targeted a kosher supermarket in Jersey City right across the Hudson River—killing four. “The school has a problem saying the words Jewish or Jew,” another parent said, “and calling out hate against this community.”

Some Jewish parents see the problem as narrow and specific—an unexpected and surprising blindspot that can be repaired with education and engagement. To others, it’s actually part and parcel of the new identitarian-progressive politics.“Some experienced teachers are perceived to be vulnerable because they’re now seen as old-fashioned, out of touch, and insufficiently zealous,” one employee told me, adding that the tension amongst faculty has “enabled or partially resulted” in the departures of multiple teachers to other institutions. And numerous parents talk about what they see as the effects of this new pedagogy on their children.

“Students are an easy target for politically radical authority figures who choose to spend their time at the head of the classroom (or auditorium) preaching political ideologies (whether or not they are based in fact),” Allison Ross, a parent of students at Fieldston, wrote in a letter sent to the school’s leadership and board members. (Ross would not share the letter with Tablet. After it was forwarded to this reporter by multiple other people, Ross did confirm that she was its author.) “Fieldston is no longer a place that values teaching students ‘how to think.’ It has instead become a leader in teaching ‘what to think.’”

Several Jewish parents said that this emerging herd mentality had other more direct repercussions: While some of the school’s administrators and faculty have expressed solidarity with Jewish families in private, there’s a fear, according to multiple employees, that any public activism on behalf of the Jewish families will lead to that member of the staff becoming ostracized by their colleagues. This is particularly important because, unlike nearly every other elite private school in New York City, the faculty at Fieldston are unionized—which endows them with a power their colleagues at other schools lack in disputes with the board or the administration.

For some, the potency of this power became more visible this past November, when the school sent out word about a planned speaking event with the NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a popular presenter and author who has written about the chilling effect censorship has had on schools and institutions. Haidt also speaks openly about his Jewish identity, which was a comfort to some of the Jewish parents.

But soon after’s Haidt’s event was made public, a small group of faculty threatened to boycott his talk when they learned he would be speaking to their students, according to several people familiar with the incident. “Haidt is advocating for a kind of open dialogue and questioning of politically correct policing that offends the faculty,” one parent said. Under pressure, school head Jessica Bagby rescheduled Haidt’s event to the spring, hoping by then she could “prepare the school” for Haidt’s talk, said multiple sources.

Not long after Haidt’s event was removed from the schedule, word spread of the school’s invitation to Kayum Ahmed. The announcement struck at least one Jewish parent as evidence that what their family was negatively experiencing was not about to go away anytime soon. “I found that set of events to be incredibly disturbing, and not something I’m willing to accept in a school my kids go to,” the parent said.

Following Ahmed’s talk, apprehensions about censorship and intensifying anti-Semitism continued to escalate. Reactions to the lack of any rebuttal at the assembly, and the classroom ambivalence that seemed to follow, made its way through the school’s administration and board of trustees, said one person who is familiar with the dialogue among the school’s leadership. By Friday afternoon, the school’s leadership decided a formal response was required. With input from the Fieldston communications team, this person said, a draft letter was written by the school’s public relations firm and circulated amongst leadership and members of the board.

In multiple versions of that document shared with Tablet, the letter, signed by Nigel Furlonge, the principal of the high school, states that the invited guest speaker at a recent assembly “made a comment about Israel, the Jewish community, and the Holocaust that was particularly painful, disturbing, and upsetting to many of us in our community.”

“Our school has a history of inviting a wide variety of speakers with diverse perspectives,” Furlonge continued. “Respecting differences and engaging in the necessary dialogue and discussion to move ourselves and our larger community forward is foundational to our school’s values.”

Among the reviewers commenting on this draft, some were aghast that the school’s position on Ahmed’s comments would qualify his sentiments as part of a spectrum of diverse perspectives and differences that should be respected, according to someone familiar with the review process. Others, this source continued, took umbrage at the fact that Ahmed’s comments appeared to be delivered with the authority of a public figure who was invited by the school and thanked for his remarks by school officials.

“Fieldston is so mindful of all marginalized groups, but one. Instead, hatred is spewed and lies are spread, offending a small marginalized people—the Jewish people,” Ross wrote in her letter. “Query as to what the outcry and outrage would be if the word Muslim, or African American, or Transgender, or Gay was substituted for Jew. We think we know. Swift action would follow and people would be held accountable, whether there was any intention to hurt or not. ‘Heads would roll.’ Classes would be cancelled. Protests would follow. We’ve seen it—time and again. Not so when Jews are being attacked.” Over the weekend, according to multiple families, more parents spoke to their children and then contacted each other in frantic text chains and phone calls, wondering why the school had not yet issued any kind of comment. 

By Monday, the leadership of the school was anxious to quell the growing unrest, a person familiar with the leadership’s decision making said, but lawyers cautioned school leaders that a revised statement being circulated was too critical of Kayum Ahmed directly and might ostensibly expose the school to libel charges, according to this person. Some involved in the discussion of the response felt the risk was justified by the necessity to reaffirm an unequivocal position against anti-Semitism, particularly in light of other recent incidents at the school—but that position, according to a person familiar with the drafting process, was not universally endorsed by all parties involved in finalizing the statement. There was enough dissent among the board and administration about how to properly respond that some proposed waiting for after the Thanksgiving break to publicly acknowledge the incident, this person said. That course of action was undermined on the Tuesday before the holiday, when the Washington Free Beacon published a story featuring a clip of Ahmed’s talk on their website.

Following the wide dissemination of the video clip, concerned parents now reached out directly to the school wondering about the circumstances that led to Ahmed’s presentation. On Wednesday morning, Bagby signed off on a final letter that was sent to the Fieldston community at large. “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,” she declared. “We will not accept Anti-Semitism. We will not accept racism. We will not accept sexism. We will not accept homophobia. We will not accept transphobia. We will not accept xenophobia. We will not accept hatred in all its ugly shapes and forms.”

Bagby’s response landed with a thud among Jewish parents, several of them told me. “That letter was worse than doing nothing,” one father explained, pointing out that school’s inability to single out anti-Semitism, coupled with the lack of any direct condemnation of the content of Ahmed’s remarks, reflected a lack of courage or willingness to stand up against this particular form of hatred. “It was simply a ‘fuck you,’ and entirely infuriating,” he said. Another parent I spoke with wearily acknowledged to herself that the school’s response was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and immediately began the process of finding another school for her children.

For these parents who’d themselves encountered incidents of anti-Semitism at Fieldston or watched their children endure such trials, there was a hope that if the school would only ramp up its educational offerings on the Holocaust or on anti-Semitic bias the campus experience of Jewish students would improve, several parents told me. There had been a time, they recalled, when the school held regular assemblies with Holocaust survivors, including a Holocaust Remembrance Day—which the school no longer includes in its annual calendar of events.

Yet, as some of these same parents recognized, Fieldston is a different place for Jews than it was before, perhaps because New York City is a different place. As one parent observed, Jewish education in New York happened every day for children who would encounter Holocaust survivors at the synagogue, at the kosher butcher’s, and at family birthday parties where explanations would accompany the tattoos on guests’ forearms. At this point, the expectation that elite schools like Fieldston will wholeheartedly embrace Jewish students—let alone encourage the kind of Jewish self-awareness that students are not receiving in their home environments—seems, at best, misplaced. All of which is rather unfortunate—and not just for Jewish students and their parents.

“There’s been a serious decline in the climate at the school in terms of its mission of advancing academic excellence, which I understand to include a robust viewpoint diversity,” one teacher told me. “And now that’s a very rocky landscape to navigate.”


*Due to an editing error, the original version of this piece omitted Ahmed’s reference to South Africa.

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.