Elite Riverdale School Fostered Intense Anti-Israel Climate, Parents Say
More than 100 parents at the elite Riverdale Country School in the Bronx criticized administrators for allowing what they described as intense anti-Israeli sentiment to fester on campus during a packed, emotional meeting the evening of June 11.
The assembly was held at the start of the school’s summer break, days after the administration announced an investigation into history teacher Shawn Redden. He has been accused of what one parent said was “bullying in the classroom” during a heated discussion with students following the killing of 60 Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli soldiers on May 14.
“He was yelling, he was screaming and saying things like ‘Israelis are all terrorists,’ etc., and not letting [my daughter] comment further,” said one mother about her child’s recollection of the discussion, adding that the young woman was again driven to tears when another student defended Redden’s right to criticize the Israeli response during an assembly after the incident.
“None of the faculty or administration present said anything to simply protect her as the most vulnerable in their group,” she added.
The situation in Gaza has become a hot-button issue on school campuses, leading to a death threat aimed at the administrator of an highly regarded Manhattan public school that held a moment of silence for Palestinian victims.
Riverdale parents packed into the theater on the school’s campus, secluded along a leafy, winding road in a tony neighborhood. They clapped after each speaker brought up a number of concerns, including students’ fears their grades would suffer if they expressed opinion outside of their teachers’ liberal orthodoxy.
“The anti-Israel, anti-capitalist, anti-American, anti-success narratives of resentment echo off the walls of this school,” said one parent, who has two daughters at Riverdale, adding there was an “environment where students are afraid and unwilling to challenge their teachers to provide a contrasting point of view.”
Redden, whose wife is Jewish, countered that the parent’s account of her daughter’s experience “has no basis in fact” and that he never made “outrageous and ignorant” statement equating all Israelis to terrorists.
“I would never have said that, because it is not what I believe. I was providing historical context in response to the many allegations posted on the wall of the building where I teach, and among some students, equating all Palestinians — indeed, all Arabs — with terrorists,” Redden told the Forward in an email.
“As an educator, I provide a forum where all students can freely express their views. Any suggestion, by a small group of parents who do not know me, that I hold any animus towards any group of people, and in particular, the Jewish community, is deeply offensive to me and my beloved Jewish family.”
Board of Trustees Chair David Westin assured the crowd on Monday they took their concerns seriously and vowed to address the issue over the summer.
“The job here is to help our kids be ready to deal with the world and if they grow up and know how to deal with conflicting opinions,” said Westin, “and talk through the controversial subjects in a way that is civil.”
Some students posted flyers around campus in support of Redden and wrote messages defending his teaching ability and free speech rights, according to current and former Riverdale community members.
Another parent, who said her family moved to New York from Israel, said her children “have felt uncomfortable at Riverdale because of their connection to Israel” and that at least four teachers railed against the country while teaching inaccurate information, including that Arab Israelis were not allowed to vote.
The June 11 meeting followed another assembly held on May 31, during which hundreds of parents voiced their frustration about the alleged bullying, according to one parent, who declined to give their name out of fear of reprisals from the school.
Also on June 11, some attendees said other teachers in the history department taught misleading information.
Parent Sam Levine, who has two children in the high school, criticized another teacher, Joel Doerfler, who in 2016 published an article on Mondoweiss that accused “obnoxious parents” who did not have children in his class of harassing school administrators about his teachings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“What teacher, after all, wants to take on the Israel Lobby and its local minions?” Doerfler wrote. “In particular, what non-Jewish Riverdale teacher would want to wade into this hornet’s nest, knowing that unless he teaches the Zionist party line about Israel they may very well be accused of anti-Semitism?”
Mondoweiss is a “hate site” that is biased against Israel, Levine said.
“He’s actively bringing into his classroom an agenda and not intentionally trying to be balanced in what is an extremely complex issue,” Levine told the Forward after the meeting. “All the parents want our kids to exposed to a 360-degree view of key issues —- especially complex issues. Not one side. No matter which one side.”
Westin added that he “took a lot of notes” and planned to talk to the whole board. He then asked parents to give them enough time to “come as close to truth as we can come,” because many board members were not aware of the extent of the problem.
Levine said that he wants the board to “implement policies” that will stop teachers from bullying students who may disagree on Israeli and other complicated issues.
“So while it’s troubling and disturbing to hear some of the specifics, it’s a great opportunity to show how Riverdale … will handle it,” he said.
Doerfler did not return a request for comment.