By Lydia Schmelzer and Sophia Sonnenfeldt ‘18
Last year, four rabbis spoke about how they incorporate Rabbi Heschel’s values of social justice into their Jewish living in honor of Heschel at Heschel Week. Simmering tensions between liberals and conservatives surfaced when all panel members expressed liberal-leaning sentiments. After the program, there was chaos in the halls as right-leaning students expressed their frustration at not being heard or represented in Heschel programming. The next day, the administration issued an apology for delivering a biased program. In their letter to students and faculty, Rabbi Noam and Rabbi Dahlia wrote, “We regret that the overall tone of the program ended up expressing a one-sided political perspective,” and to the parents they added, “the panel did not represent the pluralism we seek to protect and respect in our school community.”
Just a few weeks ago, the senior class was invited to and attended a program celebrating the 70th anniversary of the passing of the Partition Plan, sponsored by Israel’s Mission to the United Nations. Students and teachers alike approached the event with open minds, without a clue about what the program would entail. After listening to speeches by Vice President Mike Pence, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, and President of the Jewish World Congress Ronald Lauder, all of whom endorsed President Trump, the right-wing nature of this program became clear to all seniors in attendance. While some students nodded in agreement, many liberal students shared looks of noticeable concern. In the wake of the program, however, there was no anger or frustration directed at the school for partaking in this event. No apology was sent out to liberal students for not representing the left-wing perspective. Even more importantly: no apology letter was needed.
As two self-identifying liberal students, we found that the opinions represented at this program do not align with our beliefs. Still, we found it immensely valuable to hear from the other side, as it opened our eyes to perspectives we often don’t hear. We did not have to agree with the speakers to respect the program and its legitimacy, nor did we feel as though an apology for a political program turned unexpectedly partisan was necessary.
In fact, Heschel should be hosting more political – and therefore sometimes partisan – programs directed at all members of the student body, regardless of political affiliation. Heschel students should be trusted to engage critically with programming and to discern for ourselves what is fact and what is opinion. Filtering out partisanism from political programming only makes it harder for students to grapple with perspectives that they disagree with. A liberal student can gain as much from a Fox News article as a conservative student, and vice versa. Why is the administration so concerned with reactionary dissent that they are willing to pull the plug on meaningful activities? If we choose to avoid controversy for the sake of comfort amongst the student body, we lose the ability to effectively and thoughtfully communicate with those of differing opinions.
As high school students, we can do better. We are capable of learning from controversial programming. Though exposure to dissent may initially breed discomfort, it ultimately allows us to solidify and question our own beliefs, as well as learn from others. We should be actively working to foster a sense of tolerance of opinions that differ from our own by encouraging political discourse across party lines. The essence of pluralism is learning from discomfort. To do so, we cannot shy away from partisan material.
As we look toward Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is critical to remember the stifling of controversy last year. The program planned for MLK Day was to watch a movie that discussed the issue of mass incarceration of men of color. Although the movie, 13th, has an agenda, the program’s intention was to spark conversation about said issues and have students parse through these concepts themselves, not to force a specific opinion on the student body. This year, students should be held, and should hold themselves to, a higher standard. We must be trusted to detect and interrogate a slant when we see one.