On the morning of May 15, a day after Israeli soldiers shot and killed more than 60 largely unarmed Palestinian protesters on the Gaza–Israel border and injured thousands more, Joel Doerfler, a history teacher at New York City’s elite Riverdale Country School, decided to post The New York Times’ front page headline and accompanying photos in the hallway outside his classroom. “ISRAELIS KILL DOZENS IN GAZA,” read the headline, to which Doerfler added a personal note: “I support Palestinian human rights.”
Doerfler, now 74 years old, had been a member of the faculty at Riverdale for more than 25 years, heading the history department since 1992. He often taught an elective course covering the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and his politics weren’t a secret. “I’ll Believe that Corporations are People When Texas Executes One,” read a sticker plastered on the front of his classroom door. I had him as a teacher years ago, at Columbia Prep. He was a lefty then, too, unabashed but never dogmatic about it and certainly never dismissive of any argument from the other side of the aisle. He welcomed opposing views, and he made us work for the ones we might’ve shared with him. Doerfler introduced us to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and we spent a year delving into third world economic dependency theory. He had a wry sense of humor and never handed out an easy A, which made some students want to earn his approval all the more.
From what I gathered in talking to a number of his recent pupils, little about my old teacher had changed: Doerfler, who is Jewish, didn’t push any political doctrine so much as he inculcated in his students a powerful desire to understand how the world works, by whatever lights they preferred.
When Doerfler posted the Times’ headline, he wasn’t doing anything terribly out of the ordinary. The strange part came next. A small but vocal minority of pro-Israel students responded by putting up a slew of articles and handwritten post-it notes all around the perimeter of Doerfler’s initial posting, practically enveloping it. Over the course of the next two days, the tone and tenor of the responses, including memes, grew more openly anti-Palestinian and then explicitly anti-Arab. One student said some of the articles on the wall were culled from “ultra-conservative sites.” Multiple sources described the later postings as “Islamophobic.” It was, they said, as charged a political atmosphere as they’d ever experienced on campus.
The outrage metastasized, quickly swallowing up another teacher in the history department, Shawn Redden. A select group of parents got involved. A New York City tabloid took up the cause. And soon what began with a headline and a few photos posted on a wall outside a Bronx classroom would come to involve a multimillion-dollar Jewish advocacy organization and a number of influential supporters of Israel. Those influential parents, who collectively have donated vast sums to Riverdale in recent years, met in private to lobby highly receptive school officials — including the board’s chair, David Westin, the former president of ABC News — and worked to shape and then dominate the agenda of a more public parents’ meeting in June.
It was during that latter meeting that Riverdale’s culture war exploded into the open. Parents aired a number of long-simmering grievances, claiming some of their children were being unfairly persecuted and laying out a vast, unfounded conspiracy of leftist indoctrination and speech suppression on the part of the faculty. At one point in the meeting, some teachers were likened to a “tumor” that required immediate removal. At another, Doerfler himself was compared to a white supremacist. Someone even invoked the Me Too movement, analogizing the teachers to powerful predators. And throughout, they treated any criticism of Israel or its current government as equivalent to anti-Semitism. It was the playbook of Israel’s staunchest defenders, adapted to a prep school setting.
By mid-June it was all over. Doerfler had quit in protest, and Redden, who’d been out on paid leave since May despite enjoying the support of a group of students and a larger group of alumni, was resigned to never teaching at Riverdale again.
The saga was a parable of political correctness as it more commonly exists in America, beyond the apoplexies of mainstream pundits. For all of the coverage devoted to the supposed assaults on free speech perpetrated by the left on college campuses and the honking claims of persecution by the right, the real threats to liberal ideals within the academy come from the influential and powerful, people who can demand that a school stand in lockstep with their political agendas or risk losing out on their largesse.
There was something in all of this that an acolyte of Doerfler’s might grimly appreciate: Students at Riverdale had gotten an excellent lesson in how the world really works.
Riverdale Country School, founded in 1907, sprawls across 27.5 acres in the affluent Riverdale suburb of the Bronx. The 1,100 students or so who constitute the lower, middle and upper schools have access to an enviable range of facilities: close to a dozen academic buildings, multiple tennis courts, a regulation football field, a greenhouse, performing arts spaces, science-specific labs and a massive 13,000-square-foot indoor aquatic center, recently built to replace the old pool named after the family of Steve Mnuchin, an alumnus and the the current secretary of the treasury. The academics are rigorous, and admission isn’t cheap, with the cost of tuition and other expenses exceeding $50,000 per year. The school also has a $63.3 million endowment, per Riverdale.
Former and current students alike speak of the school as a place where intellectual curiosity is valued above all else. I talked to a dozen or so members of the Riverdale community in all. They were unanimous in their assessment of the campus and its intellectual climate, though something of the current climate was also suggested by the fact that all but one insisted on anonymity, for fear of reprisals. Additionally, some current parents are worried that if they spoke publicly, the administration might retaliate by damaging their child’s college admission prospects down the road.
Whatever their present anxieties, Riverdale students are personally invested in the school’s “greatness,” as a recent alumnus put it. Politically, the school tends toward a cosmopolitan liberalism, though the administration works diligently to ensure that all sides of any hot-button issue are given a full hearing. Prior to the 2012 election, New York Times columnists Charles Blow, whose two children attended Riverdale, and Ross Douthat were invited to speak. But teachers and the administration are more than willing to praise and encourage activist efforts, such as a video shared on Riverdale’s Instagram page this March celebrating students who staged a walkout to demand tighter gun control legislation.
Riverdale was quick to respond earlier in the 2017–18 school year when the campus was rocked by two incidents of direct racist provocation. Someone scrawled the N-word on the wall of an African-American teacher’s classroom; a month later, a swastika was found on a bathroom stall, per emails sent by the administration and obtained by HuffPost. In both cases, the administration made it abundantly clear that the vandalism was beyond the pale and would not be tolerated. During Riverdale’s 2018 graduation ceremony, Shelby Stokes, the teacher whose classroom had been vandalized, spoke movingly about the incident — “a violation,” she said, “of what I consider to be a sacred space.”
Students rallied around her “in a way that mended the hole in my spirit,” she said in her speech, a video of which was viewed by HuffPost. She recalled the multicolored post-it notes of “affirmation and love” that filled her office. She drew on the work of Paulo Freire. “Freire tells that love is a commitment to others and that it must generate acts of freedom,” she said. “You cannot have known how you freed me from a crushing sense of self-doubt. I will be forever grateful for your intervention.”
Her speech painted a portrait of a warmly supportive environment in which teachers learn from students as surely as students learn from teachers. As Doerfler would himself learn, though, there are limits to Riverdale’s soft progressivism.
After he posted the headline and photos, the hallway outside his classroom became a hub for hotly contested conversations about Israel and Palestine. Over the next two days, the furor continued unabated. Maybe 50 students in total — approximately one-tenth of the middle and upper school — regularly engaged in debates around the wall, with participation increasing as the week went on. And while some of the conversations were respectful, the loudest voices belonged to the pro-Israel students, some of whom asserted that supporting Palestinian protesters was the equivalent of supporting Hamas, ISIS, even terrorism in general.
One such example on the wall, per multiple sources, was a quote that has been attributed in numerous publications to former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, but its provenance is questionable: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” A similar, handwritten but unattributed post-it note on the wall read, “Arabs need to stop loving their bombs and start loving each other.”
For his part, Redden posted on the door of his classroom the names of the Palestinians who had been killed and also Amnesty International’s article likening Israel’s actions to war crimes. Like Doerfler, it wasn’t hard to deduce where Redden landed on the political spectrum. In 2011, Redden was participating in the Occupy Wall Street protests at Zuccotti Park and insisting on more concrete demands. “Like Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand,’” he said, according to The New York Times.
One student, a rising senior at Riverdale, told me about a run-in with a group of other students. This was May 17, two days after Doerfler’s posting. After leaving a bioethics class, the student approached the wall and, staring at Meir’s probably apocryphal quote, said sotto voce, to no one in particular, “These Jewish kids…” Before finishing the thought, the student was surrounded by a handful of male students, five or so, who screamed “racist” in front of the student’s face over and over again. The encounter lasted two to three minutes, by the student’s recollection. The group dispersed, and the student was left in tears. (A classmate who was present backed up the student’s account.)
In recalling the incident, the student expressed deep regret for having explicitly criticized Jewish students, saying it was “wrong” to have done so, especially when there was no way to determine who was responsible for the postings in question. But the student also remembered having felt stunned and unable to respond while under attack. “I felt shocked. I felt shocked and powerless,” the student said. Never before had the student felt so explicitly targeted. “Riverdale is becoming a more and more foreign place to me,” the student said.
Later that Thursday night, another student sent an email to Kelley Nicholson-Flynn, the head of upper school. In the email, which was obtained by HuffPost, the student made it clear that the wall had sparked few, if any, productive conversations. Pro-Israel students, however, were “exhibiting racist tendencies,” the student wrote, “posting racist remarks” and sharing decidedly “anti-Arab articles.” The student also asked that the school make a definitive statement condemning these posts, as they had done in October and November in response to the racist vandalism.
Realizing the situation was becoming untenable, the administration jumped in. Nicholson-Flynn sent an email addressed to all upper school students and Riverdale employees on the morning of May 18, decrying the use of both anti-Arab and anti-Semitic language and suggesting that students consult the Upper School Student Handbook to see if any of the behavior during the past week constituted harassment. If so, the incidents would be fully investigated, Nicholson-Flynn promised.
This was well-intentioned but curious. No anti-Semitic material had been posted on the wall, sources told me. Save for Redden’s posting on his classroom door, all the material affixed to the wall by students was supportive of Israel. If Nicholson-Flynn meant that anti-Semitic opinions had been expressed verbally, she did not make any such a distinction in the email. And the wall itself, in her view, was a matter open to debate. “Some have suggested that this wall was a healthy dialogue,” Nicholson-Flynn wrote, “while others have suggested that the anonymous postings were deeply problematic.”
In her note, she announced a new policy with regards to the wall or any material posted on campus: They would have to be signed by a student, student group or faculty member. If not, they would be removed.
The email then went on to outline what the administration felt was the best path toward building “a climate that supports dialogue,” including a series of meetings with interested students.
By the end of the day, all of the postings were taken down.
But the tension had not solely been confined to the hallway. There were classroom arguments, as hinted at by the New York Post. I heard about one such encounter from a source favorable to Redden: On May 17, a student in a freshman class supposedly told Redden that posting the Amnesty International article and names of the Palestinian victims on his door was tantamount to supporting terrorists. Several weeks later, at a parents’ meeting, the mother of a Riverdale student would allege that a teacher “screamed and banged on the table while not letting my son speak his views.”
The parent was almost certainly talking about Redden and the May 17 incident. The source disputed the parent’s version of events while acknowledging that the exchange was indeed tense. Voices were raised, but no one struck any tables. The student in question aired his views, and the conversation became more measured as the class as a whole discussed what life is like in Gaza, which is under a crippling Israeli blockade and what a United Nations panel has likened to apartheid rule. Two million Palestinians have to survive with only three to four hours of electricity per day, Redden pointed out, according to the source, and 97 percent of the water is undrinkable. By the end of class, the source said, Redden and the student were on amicable terms.
Then, on May 18, during his mock trial elective, Redden was leading a discussion of the events of 1947–48, specifically the removal of over 700,000 Palestinians from Israel. A senior female student, who is Jewish, stood up and announced that she would not remain in class, according to three sources who were in the room, all of them sympathetic to Redden. The teacher told the student to remain seated. Should she choose to leave, Redden told her, it would impact her final grades. She bolted the classroom anyway, slamming the door behind her.
Redden was on a scheduled paternity leave the following week — his wife had recently given birth to the couple’s second child — but on May 23, he was informed by Dominic Randolph, Riverdale’s head of school, that he would be placed on paid leave, pending an investigation.
It would emerge later that someone had accused Redden of saying “all Israelis are terrorists” during mock trial on May 18, an allegation he vehemently denies.
“I would never have said that, because it is not what I believe,” Redden, whose wife is Jewish, told The Forward. “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.”
Two students who were in the mock trial elective at the time of the incident backed up Redden’s account. “The claim that Mr. Redden stated ‘Israelis are all terrorists’ is a complete fallacy,” one of the students told HuffPost via email.
“I firmly believe that no teacher has attempted to allow students to consider all sides of an argument as Mr. Redden has,” the student continued. “He is outspoken and passionate and that’s what makes him one of the greatest teachers that Riverdale has.”
Randolph told Redden that the investigation would be completed the following week, after the long Memorial Day weekend. Redden had already been scheduled to take a sabbatical during the following fall semester. But via email, he confirmed that he will not be returning to Riverdale. “I welcome the time with my five-month-old son and am excited to get back in the classroom soon,” said Redden, who declined to comment beyond his email.
Because of Redden’s scheduled absence the following week, it took time for word to trickle down to the faculty and student body. Discourse was had in the meantime — “sustained, in-person dialogue about the current situation in the Middle East” among students and invited faculty members. That’s how Nicholson-Flynn put it in an email. According to a student who attended one such session, the conversation centered on the meta question of why the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a “challenging subject.”
Amid all the uncertainty, students began to rally in support of their now-absent teacher. A 20-page single-spaced dossier with personal testimonials from a dozen students was presented to the administration. They also sent a group email praising him to the rafters as both a teacher and mentor, and decrying the lack of information about his job status, especially since, per the email, a board meeting to determine Redden’s fate was imminent.
“Mr. Redden stands out as one of few Riverdale community members who truly champions dialogue and explores all sides of an argument,” the email stated. “Mr. Redden sets out to encourage this behavior in us, his students, everyday [sic] at Riverdale.”
In response, Randolph, the head of school, sent this email on May 30:
I deeply respect your writing this message to me and understand your feelings in regard to Mr. Redden, a teacher whom I also admire and respect. I know that he is a very important figure in this community for many students and other teachers.
At the same time, several incidents happened that are concerning. We are looking into those incidents and will decide what happens. We have clear expectations for our community members and hold people accountable to those expectations.
A student who co-signed the support email found Randolph’s response to be enervating and disheartening. “We felt so powerless,” the student said. “Because we recognized that at the end of the day the administration and the parents who fund the school have the power.”
A group calling itself “Students for Redden” was formed. Members put up posters on the walls in support of their teacher on June 6 and then again on June 7. The administration quickly took them down, despite the fact that they were signed, per Nicholson-Flynn’s emailed directive.
No current Riverdale teacher was willing to speak with HuffPost. Reached by phone, one faculty member, in a flat, affectless voice, said that any questions should be directed to Randolph, then quickly ended the conversation. “Their jobs are at stake,” the member of Students for Redden said of the faculty. “The administration has proven time and time again that they’re willing to listen to parents who want these teachers fired.”
What the bulk of the student body did not know is that their activism paled in comparison to the work of a far more influential group operating behind the scenes to determine not just Redden’s fate, but Doerfler’s. These individuals had larger goals in mind, too, than jettisoning a couple teachers. They sought to impose their vision on all Riverdale teachers and bend the school’s curriculum to their will.
‘Tolerance For Hate’
On May 21, Tal Keinan, the Israeli-born founder of Clarity Capital, emailed four other Riverdale parents with a draft of a letter that he planned to send to Randolph. He was requesting comments and possible additions. The bulk of the draft, which was obtained by HuffPost, concerned “last week’s campus discussion of events in the Middle East,” and the students who were “silenced” and experienced “unprovoked and angry rants about Israel” from unnamed teachers, Keinan wrote.
A series of emails followed, the recipient list growing with every one. This was a mustering up of angry parents and their grievances, and the emails laid out in detail just how redress would be achieved.
More allegations were lobbed, many of which concerned Redden. On May 22, Seth Berger wrote: “The Redden War Report Twitter feed would support someone [sic] belief he is being unstable.” Redden’s Twitter account has since been deleted, but as Berger noted with horror, “The top banner of Redden’s Twitter feed is a picture of presumably his very young child holding an election ballot (presidential election) where they wrote in for president Assata Shakur,” the exiled former member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted in the shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper. Sam Levine also chimed in to say, “I would like to see Redden terminated for cause.”
Keinan sent the letter to Randolph on the afternoon of May 22. The following morning, he and Levine met with Randolph. Later that same day, Randolph informed Redden that he would be placed on paid leave.
In the evening, Keinan wrote another email to get the group up to speed — it now included over four dozen participants. In it, he summarized the meeting with Randolph: “There is an atmosphere of tolerance for hate, which permeates only a narrow constituency at Riverdale, but that targets a specific community and enables the type of behavior that we experienced last week,” Keinan alleged. Some students felt “intimidated,” and parents were upset at the insufficient response by Riverdale. But Randolph “sees things as we do,” according to Keinan, and “is committed to addressing the issue at its source.” A “formal communication” from Randolph would be forthcoming.
In his email, Keinan also mentioned having complained to Randolph about “four specific teachers.” Two sources told HuffPost that Doerfler and Redden made up half this quartet. The remaining two are current members of the Riverdale faculty.
On May 29, as promised, school officials met with Levine, Berger and Keinan. In attendance from Riverdale were Randolph; Dan Rosen, vice chair of the board of trustees, who serves as a member of the board of the American Jewish Congress and was appointed by former President Barack Obama to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council; and Westin, the chair of the board of trustees, who, after leaving ABC News, landed a gig as an anchor for Bloomberg TV. The next day, Levine sent a lengthy email from his wife’s address recapping the meeting.
In the email, which was obtained by HuffPost, Levine wrote that while they’d made their feelings known in multiple previous meetings with the administration, concrete results were not achieved. The goal for this meeting was to ensure their demands were met.
- Taking “specific action” with regards to Redden.
- Addressing the climate of purported “indoctrination” by left-leaning members of the faculty and preventing “teachers from using their platform to promote personal ideology regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, particularly when the topic is outside of the academic curriculum.” This would be accomplished by way of a reworking of the school’s current guidelines and policies.
- Following the example set by the pending “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” co-sponsored by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) — “one of my closest friends,” Levine wrote — and perhaps even inviting Deutch to speak at Riverdale.
- Meeting with a small group of students who felt “intimidated by certain teachers.”
- Holding training seminars for faculty members comparable to Starbucks’ decision to close 8,000 stores that same day for racial bias seminars.
Also, as was made clear at different points throughout the email, Randolph and Westin were in the parents’ corner. Levine wrote:
David [Westin] was very clear in his response, stating that there was no excuse for teachers to be using their platform of power to indoctrinate students with their point of view regarding Israel. David went on to say he wanted the school to have direct conversations with teachers to make clear that if they felt they could not stop themselves from this action, then they would not be allowed to teach at Riverdale.
According to the email, Randolph, Rosen and Westin agreed that the Starbucks-like seminars were “a good course of action,” though the exact contours “would need to be worked out.” And plans for meetings between Randolph, Westin and individual students were “already underway. ”
After talking for 90 minutes, the meeting attendees shared a “moment of levity,” as Levine described it: “We explicitly said that we are ‘not going away’ [emphasis and italics theirs] and wanted to remain engaged to make sure change is made and David responded, that after meeting us, he was quite clear we would not be ′going away.’”
Levine also promised the parents that Randolph, Rosen and Westin “are going to take real action,” starting with a board meeting to discuss the parents’ agenda.
“One parent spoke of teachers exacting 'retribution' against students for disagreeing with a 'left-wing, anti-free-enterprise, anti-Israel agenda.'”
Berger, Keinan and Levine did not respond to a request for comment. I asked for comment from the Riverdale administrators, only to be handed off to a man named Michael McKeon. McKeon is a partner at Mercury, a lobbying and crisis communications shop. In a statement on behalf of the school, he wrote: “At Riverdale Country School, we believe that there should always be robust dialogue and debate of different points of view. At the same time, all community members — students, faculty, and staff — must be treated at all times with respect as outlined specifically in our Principles of School Life. When it appears that these principles may have been violated, we investigate immediately and take whatever actions may be required.”
I’d asked whether Randolph agreed there was a “tolerance for hate” at Riverdale, as Keinan’s email indicated. McKeon wrote in response: “At Riverdale, we are proud that we have created an environment of trust that encourages our students and facility to explore many points of view in an open and healthy way. To suggest Dominic [Randolph] or any school administrator would characterize the school’s environment in any other way, and especially in the incomprehensible way [Keinan’s email] does in your note, is simply wrong.”
Neither Levine’s nor Keinan’s emailed summaries of the meetings mentioned the alleged Islamophobia of the previous week. However, Levine did note that he looked forward to seeing many of the email’s recipients at yet another, much larger follow-up meeting on May 31, which would be held at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a pro-Israel and pro-Jewish nonprofit advocacy organization and the former publisher of the neoconservative magazine Commentary. Per The New York Times, the AJC is “widely regarded as the dean of American Jewish organizations,” and according to the AJC’s most recent publicly available tax return, it had amassed over $143 million in net assets.
According to the email, “more than 160 parents and students” were expected to attend the May 31 meeting at the AJC. There, they would be treated to “a very interesting learning opportunity” via “the always very impressive David Harris.” Harris is the chief executive officer of the AJC. (He wrote a number of columns for HuffPost via the now-defunct contributors program.)
Berger is also listed as a member of the board of the New York chapter of the AJC, and his wife Cori Berger was listed as the chair of the AJC’s Women’s Leadership Board in the organization’s 2014–15 impact report. In May 2017, she posted a photo of the “AJC’s Leaders For Tomorrow (LFT)” on Facebook, following a meeting the student group had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. During an appearance on the AJC’s podcast last year, Cori Berger said she created the LFT student program because she was “worried about how Israel is being portrayed and decided to do something about it.”
It is unclear if the AJC provided additional assistance or guidance to this group of parents. In a statement, Harris confirmed that the AJC was asked by “members” of the Riverdale “community” to host the May 31 meeting. While he did not reveal what he told those who attended, Harris signed off on the entirety of their claims, saying he admired “those students who’ve refused to bend” and “the parents who’ve stood by their children.”
“I was dismayed to hear accounts by parents and children of attempts at what can only be described as not-so-subtle indoctrination and intimidation, mostly revolving around Middle East topics as well as anti-American and anti-capitalist sentiment, by a couple of teachers in the social studies/history department,” the statement read. “What I heard flew in the face of everything we’re taught to believe about education, which begins with the centrality of teaching children how to think, not what the party line ought to be.”
By HuffPost’s calculations, the parents who received the May 30 email had donated upward of $500,000 to Riverdale in the 2016–17 fiscal year alone. (The 2017–18 report has not yet been released.) Because the school lists only funding ranges for donations in its annual report, it is possible the total is far greater. Specifically, an individual or couple is listed as having given anywhere between $10,000 and $24,999, $25,000 to $49,999, over $50,000 and so on — meaning one year’s worth of their donations could easily have surpassed seven figures.
These parents did not have to wait long to make their platform more widely known. If the initial series of meetings served as the group’s dress rehearsal, the full production was unveiled to the rest of Riverdale’s parents two weeks later, complete with pre-written scripts.
‘The Anti-Israel, Anti-Capitalist, Anti-American, Anti-Success Narratives Of Resentment’
In an email sent on June 4 by Randolph, co-signed by Westin and Rosen, all parents from the middle and upper schools were invited to attend an open meeting on June 11 at Riverdale’s Jeslo Harris Theater. It was described as “a moment for us all to talk together about how we support and conduct civil discourse on our campus.”
That’s not quite what the meeting turned out to be. Once again, little to no information was provided about what was transpiring on campus in terms of the postings on the wall and the allegations of Islamophobia. Instead, parents were treated to an expanded version of the talking points and unsubstantiated allegations described in the emails and aired at the AJC meeting.
Nor was it an “open” meeting. A delegation of teachers from the history department was in attendance, but they were asked to leave by Randolph before the meeting formally began. They did so, per multiple sources.
An audio recording of the June 11 meeting obtained by HuffPost begins after the alleged expulsion of the faculty members. For 90 minutes, parent after parent, many of whom were reading from prepared remarks, launched an assault on the curriculum as a whole. They inveighed against the purported biases of the faculty in general, and against those of Doerfler and Redden in particular. They claimed the current environment at Riverdale “does not make learning safe” for some students. Coverage of the meeting by The Forward took their words at face value.
They alleged that students who expressed conservative political opinions were bullied into silence or coerced into writing papers and expressing opinions contrary to their beliefs. If they did offer right-of-center arguments, either in class or an academic assignment, they risked being punished with lower grades, multiple attendees said. One parent spoke of teachers exacting “retribution” against students for disagreeing with a “left-wing, anti-free-enterprise, anti-Israel agenda.”
Dozens of current and former students told HuffPost the parents’ allegations couldn’t be further from the truth. Julia Attie, who took the elective about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and graduated from Riverdale in 2016, said via email that Doerfler “welcomed debate and adored many students who disagreed with him.”
“Joel allowed students to reach their own conclusions,” she continued, “and like any great teacher, he challenged those conclusions. If anything, class discussion was dominated by students who disagreed with Doerfler’s analysis, eager to express their views.”
Another recent Riverdale graduate said via email that Doerfler’s elective provided “some of the most intellectually fulfilling discussions I have had in my life.” A wide range of perspectives was presented, the graduate said, adding that Doerfler “always made sure we understood criticisms of any argument we read (whether it be liberal, right-wing, Zionist, or anything else).”
An alumni who graduated in 2009 and took Doerfler’s classes could not “even begin to fathom” the notion that grades had ever been used as an ideological cudgel. “Not only because of [Doerfler’s] own, demonstrated integrity as an educator,” the alumnus said via email,“but because Riverdale would never allow that to happen.”
But on June 11, no one voiced any such support for Doerfler, Redden or other members of the faculty. The closest thing to a defender was a woman of color with two children in the lower school, who spoke in cautious generalities about issues raised by African-American, Hispanic-American, LGBTQ and female members of the Riverdale community. “We don’t feel, all the time, that we’re a part of each other’s conversations,” she said, noting the lack of diversity in Riverdale’s leadership on stage. (HuffPost reached out to all the parents who identified themselves during the meeting. They did not respond to a request for comment.)
More common was the sentiment expressed by a parent named Brad Bernstein. Near the meeting’s onset, someone read aloud a letter Bernstein had written to the board of trustees: “What I see is a systematic effort through curriculum, choice of faculty, and teaching style to indoctrinate our children in a political and social agenda.” He also took issue with the curriculum, specifically “the environmental damage that Walmart has caused in world history class, the study of mass incarceration in [inaudible], and extensive focus on slavery, racism, almost to the exclusion of everything else, in ′Constructing America,’” an American studies survey class for juniors.
Still, Bernstein, a Riverdale alumnus and the father of both a 2016 graduate and rising senior, donated upward of $50,000 in the 2016–17 and 2015–16 fiscal years, between $10,000 and $24,999 in the 2014–15 and 2013–14 fiscal years and between $5,000 and $9,999 in 2012–13, per Riverdale’s annual report.
Brian Schreiber, the father of four current Riverdale students and an invitee to the AJC meeting, spoke of the “selective use of data and use of factual inaccuracies [to] support a particular narrative.” He complained about a discussion of the minimum wage, which he felt was slanted. He complained about another, unnamed teacher who allegedly told a group of parents, “We all think the American Dream is a sham.” He complained about a critical review by Doerfler of the movie “The Jazz Singer.″ (Schreiber did not specify whether he was referring to the original 1927 film starring Al Jolson in blackface, or the remake, which featured Neil Diamond getting chewed out, along with the scenery, by Sir Laurence Olivier.)
“The anti-Israel, anti-capitalist, anti-American, anti-success narratives of resentment echo off the walls of this school,” he said.
Schreiber did not explain why, despite all the echoing, he has continued to enroll his kids at Riverdale for the past 15 years. Nor did he mention that he and his wife donated between $10,000 and $24,999 in 2016–17 and $5,000 and $9,999 in 2015–16 and 2014–15. From 2014–16, his wife volunteered to serve on the school’s annual fund drive.
One parent, the mother of three Riverdale students, including the student who stood up and left Redden’s class, was an invitee to the AJC meeting. (She identified herself in the meeting, but for the sake of her daughter’s privacy I won’t name her.) She reiterated her allegation about Redden’s comments during mock trial, adding an additional unsubstantiated charge: Redden had “harassed” her daughter. The parent also said, “I love Riverdale,” and that her daughter had received “the gift of this spectacular school.”
Gifts bestowed by this parent in return include: volunteering for the Annual Fund Campaign Committee in 2016–17; endowing a scholarship at Riverdale; and donating, with her husband, between $10,000 and $24,999 in 2016–17, 2015–16 and 2014–15.
Another parent, who did not provide his name prior to speaking, said that his daughter “couldn’t be happier than she was this year. She had the best year of her life, and we had the best year of ours as parents, watching her.” And then he went off about the degree to which Israel and Palestine were discussed in other classes, though not Doerfler’s elective. He also kvetched about “one-sided indoctrination” and “identity politics.”
The metaphors started to float free from their moorings. Thomas Stern, also an invitee to the AJC meeting and the chairman of the board of the Birthright Israel Foundation, likened certain teachers to “a tumor that needs to be excised” from Riverdale. “If there’s any question about whether they’ve crossed the line,” he said, “check the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.”
A father who has sent multiple children to Riverdale said the dynamic between some students and teachers is “very analogous to the Me Too movement, in that you’re taking powerful people who have opinions, are doing things to vulnerable students in a captive audience.”
Levine, who met with Randolph on May 23 and May 29, and his wife, Laurie Blitzer, a member of the board of directors of the Birthright Israel Foundation, gave between $1,907 and $4,999 in 2016–17. He wondered whether an Israel-Palestine course should even be taught at Riverdale. “Now you can decide whether Riverdale should teach that class or not — it’s your decision.” he said.
If the class were to remain a part of the curriculum, Levine went on, Doerfler should not be permitted to continue teaching it. “If Riverdale wanted to create a [inaudible] class on the Civil Rights movement, and they were looking for a teacher to teach that class and in the process of interviewing candidates to teach they found a teacher who was a white supremacist ... clearly that teacher would not be considered,” Levine said.
When it comes to Israel and Palestine, Doerfler “is effectively the equivalent on this issue of a white supremacist,” Levine said. As part of his spiel, Levine cited articles written by Doerfler that he said had been published by a “hate site,” a label also used by Stern.
The site they are referring to is Mondoweiss. It is not a hate site. It is a blog founded by a Jewish reporter that is often very critical of Israel. Doerfler has had four articles published there beginning in 2012.
In one such article, a transcript of a speech he gave in 2016, Doerfler wrote:
The experience of teaching the subject of Israel–Palestine at Riverdale is, in certain crucial respects, altogether different than the experience of teaching any other subject. This is not, I hasten to say, because the subject is any more complicated, or difficult to research, or more ethically elusive than other subjects.
It is, rather, because there exists at Riverdale, and in the culture at large, assertive, influential and highly emotional supporters of Israel and of pretty much everything it does and has done, who are hell-bent on stifling precisely the sort of academic investigation that is commonplace and unexceptional in pretty much every other academic–intellectual realm.
He wrote of a “chilling effect” that can set in. “What teacher, after all, wants to take on the Israel Lobby and its local minions?” he asked, noting that parents at Riverdale had been in frequent contact with the school’s administration about his teaching. “In particular, what non-Jewish Riverdale teacher would want to wade into this hornet’s nest,” Doerfler continued, “knowing that unless he teaches the Zionist party line about Israel they may very well be accused of anti-Semitism?”
‘A Terrible Precedent Has Been Set’
On June 13, a day after graduation, Doerfler was on campus for the final full faculty meeting of the school year. Afterwards, he was told by Randolph that his elective course on Israel and Palestine would no longer be offered. The class was canceled neither because of a lack of interest from the student body nor because of any specific issues with Doerfler’s pedagogy. As Randolph explained over a month later in a message to an email group composed of recent alumni, Doerfler’s elective about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict needed to go “to give everyone in our community some space” thus permitting students as a whole to “see various sides to issues and argue from different stances as modeled by our teachers.”
At no point in Randolph’s email did he describe how either Doerfler or his class impinged upon Riverdale’s stated academic ideals, but he did inform them that Doerfler had decided to resign in protest.
“Randolph communicated no criticism of the course itself: its curriculum, the way I taught it, or the classroom experience of students,” Doerfler told HuffPost via email.
“Canceling a course for no academic or pedagogical reason was unprecedented in my 40 years of teaching experience,” he said. “I resigned on principle because it would have been ignominious to return under such circumstances.
“I had never heard from any member of the school administration, including the deans, that students who took the course felt ‘uncomfortable,’ politically or in any other way.”
For now, Riverdale seems to be treating the issue as closed. A group of recent alumni emailed a packet to Randolph and all members of the board on July 17. The packet, which was also sent to some unnamed members of the faculty, included a letter with 120 signatories, plus 47 individual testimonials, all of which praise Riverdale’s faculty as a whole while highlighting the impact Doerfler and Redden had and continue to have on their lives.
The recent alumni also published an open letter on Medium, in which they wrote, “Riverdale can — and must — do better.” Another alumnus set up a GoFundMe page to help the Redden family with their expenses while he looks for his next job.
The Jewish father of a student who graduated Riverdale two years ago called the decisions made by the administration “a terrible assault on the culture of the school” and a threat to free academic inquiry and progressive ideals. “To me, it’s upsetting that this could happen at a school like Riverdale, where the actions they took are the opposite of the values they espouse,” he said.
“This group of influential parents will not stop at Doerfler and Redden,” he added. “They will make more demands in the future. I can promise you that. A terrible precedent has been set.”
Tucked into a back booth in an Upper West Side diner, I met with a recent Riverdale graduate who is likewise dismayed by everything that’s happened over the past two months. There’s little I can say about this person, who asked that I not include a name, age or gender identity, for fear of personal attack. But I can say that the graduate was worried above all about old school friends, former classmates, favorite teachers — what sort of community would they be returning to in the fall? “The idea that a select group of parents... are able to influence and dictate what they want the school to teach, who they want to be teaching, and what’s done in the classroom is deeply troubling and, to me, personally frightening,” the graduate said.
We shared stories about Doerfler, and I couldn’t help but recall that in 1986 he brought speakers to Columbia Prep to talk about the then-apartheid state in South Africa. In our yearbook, students wrote of what they learned from our school’s first-ever South Africa Day: “From that day forth we have been unable to say simply, ‘Oh, yeah Apartheid, bad stuff,” while watching ‘Gone with the Wind’ or reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and feeling superior. ... Action is the key word, not sympathy ... and maybe all these acts will snowball into freedom in South Africa and equality closer to home. But perhaps not. We can only hope.”
Two weeks later, the graduate was texting me about the recently enacted legislation in Israel that practically guarantees the eventual disenfranchisement of Arabs. The New York Times’ front page headline, though, framed it thus: “ISRAEL ENSHRINES RIGHTS FOR JEWS.” A trick was being played — de facto apartheid had become de jure in the blink of an eye, and the reader was none the wiser. The graduate was thinking about Doerfler’s canceled course, how necessary it seemed, especially in moments like this when the world is trying to hide the way it works.
Robert Silverman is a freelance journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Times, ESPN, The Guardian, VICE Sports, Deadspin, The Outline and more. You can follow Robert on Twitter at @BobSaietta.