By Mariel Priven ‘19
On Wednesday, January 17th, the high school hosted a panel in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Moderator and New York Times journalist David Leonhardt interviewed Columbia Law School professor Olatunde Johnson and NYC Deputy Mayor Richard Buery. The panel’s original goal had been to discuss Colin Kaepernick and the recent debate surrounding football players taking a knee during the National Anthem at their games as a form of protest. Although not enough time was provided for a fully developed conversation about the controversy, the interviewees were still able to voice their opinions and consider similarly pressing topics. Machar Fellow Johanna Press, who helped to plan the program, explained that the committee had formulated a list of questions to ask the panelists, but moderator Leonhardt ultimately decided which to ask, which affected the limited discussion about Kaepernick.
The program was planned in an effort to recognize modern American racism, and address the role of protest – a key aspect of Dr. King’s legacy – in our lives today. Certain students, however, felt that the panel did not properly commemorate King.
Junior Jake Bohrer explained that he had expected the program to celebrate King’s accomplishments, but that it instead presented speakers who did not highlight King’s work, and “shifted the conversation into a modern day political discussion,” he said. Bohrer added that when remembering other influential figures, such as Yitzhak Rabin, Heschel provides students with stories and information about their actions; Bohrer expected the same for a day honoring Dr. King. “Hearing from someone who grew up in the times of segregation, seeing a video of MLK speak, or coming together and reading the endless speeches and inspirational quotes Dr. King produced: that’s celebrating MLK. Not saying how Trump and Republicans are not upholding Dr. King’s work,” he explained.
Senior Theo Canter, on the other hand, who helped to plan the event, felt differently. He was glad that the panel “avoided a tokenist program that MLK Day usually is, like the gospel choir or watching the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” Rather, as Johanna explained, the program celebrated Dr. King by “examining history and the narratives we tell. Our understanding of protest today came out of the 60’s with King.”
In impromptu reflections following the panel, many Heschel students expressed that the conversation was an important one to have, regardless of whether or not on MLK Day.
There was also a range of reactions to the evident left-leaning views of the panel members. After a panel last year consisting of primarily liberal rabbis, there has been a lot of tension surrounding the bipartisanism, or lack thereof, of programs held for students. Bohrer explained that the lack of right-wing representation is problematic. “Republicans are marginalized at Heschel; plain and simple … A panel that bashed Republicans, bashed the president, and praised Democrats, it’s a huge issue.”
Canter, contrastingly, felt that it is crucial to take a specific stance on a day like MLK Day so that it does not lose its meaning. He worries that if a program is specifically planned to be bipartisan, the ability to voice potentially political opinions will be restricted. “MLK Day, to me, is about making a splash and being heard despite political and socioeconomic barriers. Pluralism doesn’t mean that every opinion will be voiced at every event,” he said.
Johanna explained that the goal of the program was not to be bipartisan in regards to political parties, but rather share a range of perspectives on civil rights and protests.
Social Studies teacher Shmuel Afek, who teaches the tenth grade honors seminar on racism in America, explained that a program commemorating Dr. King should make students feel uncomfortable, whether they agree politically with the panelists or not. “The place where you learn most is an uncomfortable zone. As white people, we don’t have the luxury of feeling good on MLK Day. It’s a day when we should feel challenged and that we are not doing enough and grappling issues in our society.” Shmuel explained that this year’s program was “safe” and that nobody was pushed to broaden their views. In his seminar, students deal with challenging material and are put in uncomfortable situations in order to deepen their thinking. “The program did not require us to change our thinking. When I walked out people were happy and not challenged,” he said.
In addition to not being challenged, many were disappointed by the lack of opportunity for students themselves to engage in the conversation. “We watched a performance,” Shmuel explained. “If students had the opportunity to directly address it, like in groups, more could have been internalized. I’m a bit wary about conversations in front of the whole school that just end.”
In an effort to digest the program, Shabbaton theme sessions were held about protests. Though the conversations varied by group, most focused on the concept of modern day protests as opposed to the work of King and a response to the panel specifically. Many students agreed with Shmuel, and explained that their lack of involvement in the program would mean the conversation would not be continued over the course of the following weeks. Moreover, many felt that if students could have been incorporated, more political views could have been represented, and the issue of one-sidedness would have been less prevalent.