Cries of Foul After Basketball Game At a Tony Private School Turns Ugly

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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A tempest has been swirling inside the delicate gilded teapot of New York high society after basketball fans of the elite Trinity School taunted a Jewish player for the opposing Dalton school with calls of “gefilte fish, gefilte fish,” and “hey, he fouled him… that’s not kosher!”

One Dalton parent challenged the hecklers at the Friday night game on January 27, and afterward wrote a now-well-traveled letter to the headmasters of both schools tracing a direct line between the “chorus of hate-mongers” at the game and the vicious antisemitism of the Third Reich.

“Listening to the rancorous taunting awakened long-forgotten images of Kristallnacht,” Shelly Palmer, wrote in a letter that was also addressed to the Archdiocese of New York and the New York Times.

A different account comes from a top Jewish communal official involved and students from Trinity and Dalton –– both of which have student bodies that are largely Jewish. These students say the incident suggests, if anything, how students can become desensitized to potentially antisemitic behavior when constantly surrounded by Jewish culture.

“There’s no question this was in bad taste,” said Aaron Crowell, 23, a former Trinity student who is Jewish himself. “But in places like Trinity that are so heavily Jewish, students feel we are among our own so we have to watch ourselves less closely.”

The conflicting accounts show that, most of all, in multi-ethnic New York, context is everything.

For Alex — a Jewish student in the 10th grade at Dalton, who asked to withold her last name –– when the first taunts came from the Trinity side of the gymnasium, she did not think back to World War II, but instead to a battle between the Trinity and Dalton basketball teams earlier in the season.

“We really creamed them at their homecoming,” she said, “so they were very upset with that. They were more competitive than usual.”

“They were being confrontational and aggressive,” Alex said, “but I didn’t feel offended or threatened. I’m not going to lie, my Jewish friends and I imitate old Jewish grandmothers and poke fun at each other in Jewish accents.”

Her assumption was that the rowdy students were friends of Matt Goldberg –– the Dalton player at the receiving end of the heckling — and themselves Jewish.

In fact, an investigation after the game found one of the accused students to be Jewish and all of them to be connected through friends to Goldberg, according to Joel Levy, the regional director for the New York office of the Anti-Defamation League, who has dealt extensively with the schools since the incident.

Levy said that after hearing all sides of the story, he believes it’s vital to “see this in the context of a school sporting event. In sports we frequently hear uncivil discourse.”

But Palmer, in his letter, identified much greater malice in the taunts and charged Trinity with fostering a “brand of animus,” calling the game a “sorrowful indictment of the Trinity culture.”

While Palmer later withdrew this assertion about Trinity’s culture to a reporter for the New York Times, the remarks caused reverberations in the hypercompetitive world of elite New York prep schools, in which the battle for top students hinges on a reputation for diversity as much as anything else.

Jewish parents from Trinity called up Levy at the ADL worried not about antisemitism at the school, but instead about how this might effect the school’s reputation.

In this case, the stakes were raised by the timing of the event. Next weekend Trinity will send out letters to all the students accepted for next school year, whom the school will woo in the coming weeks and months.

Administrators at Trinity did not waste any time in showing their concern for the problem. The school issued an apology to Palmer, opened an investigation into the incident, and held numerous discussions among the administrators, teachers and students.

On Tuesday, the headmaster of Trinity wrote to the school’s community countering the most damning accusations in Palmer’s letter.

“That letter,” wrote Henry Moses, “which was widely distributed on the Internet and in e-mails and has been the occasion for reports in the media, characterizes Trinity as an institution that inculcates hatred in its students. This is a lie.”

For students taking part in the lively Internet discussion since the incident, it was the particular presence of Jews at Trinity that made Palmer’s charges of antisemitism unlikely.

But Richard Goldstein, a social commentator for The Village Voice, argues that the heavy presence of Jews at the school, and even a Jew among the hecklers, does not preclude bigotry as the motivating factor in this incident.

“There is a continuing anxiety about embodying what it is that makes Jews different,” Goldstein said. “You will join in the joke in order to tell yourself that you are not implicated by these things.”

Levy, though, said that the more he learns about the incident, “the less vicious it appears.”

“They were using words about Jews that they were comfortable in using because of their context –– they didn’t think it was bad,” Levy said.

Perhaps most dispiriting for some observers was that the hecklers’ aggressive tactics came out on the winning end of the night. Trinity beat Dalton 45-33, to even the series at one win apiece for the season.

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