Posted on June 30, 2024

How the War in Gaza Disrupted an Elite Private School

Katherine Rosman, New York Times, June 26, 2024

This spring, 30 ninth graders from a progressive private school near Greenwich Village went on a field trip.

There was nothing unusual about venturing out into New York City to boost their classroom studies. At the school, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, this sort of experiential learning was so routine that few parents were even notified of the destination: The People’s Forum in Midtown Manhattan, a hub for gatherings of left-wing activists. Its executive director has called for the destruction of Israel.

Afterward, parents were flabbergasted to learn where the students were taken, and what they were told.

During their visit, a People’s Forum employee gave the students a 90-minute lecture on the perils of America’s support for Israel and Ukraine. The students were “a captive audience who were subjected to anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda,” according to a grievance report filed by a parent and shared with school leadership. A handful of Jewish students walked out during the presentation, upset.

Later, the head of school, Phil Kassen, sent a message to parents acknowledging that he had been aware of the plan and taking responsibility for what he said was an error in judgment. “I could have stopped this trip,” he wrote. “I didn’t.” It was not his first apology this school year.

In the eight months since Hamas attacked Israel and Israel retaliated with a military campaign in Gaza, private schools across New York have been disrupted by strife over how to manage education about the war, political expression by faculty and students, and accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Similar skirmishes have played out in public schools, which educate the majority of New York’s children. But at many private schools, where parents often pay more than $60,000 for their children’s tuition, administrators must worry about attracting future customers. At the same time, they are trying to placate teachers, including many who embrace left-wing politics, and parents who have increasingly demanded a say in how schools respond to the war.

At many private schools, administrators were ill-prepared for the emotional furor. Many teachers were eager to instruct students about Israel’s displacement of Palestinians. Some Jewish parents said they welcomed open discourse about the war as long as it did not stray into antisemitism. At several schools, there has been friction between pro-Israel students and pro-Palestinian classmates. Some students have publicly criticized administrators for not teaching them about the long history of conflict in the Middle East.


Some Jewish parents say that their children are uncomfortable wearing Star of David necklaces in some classes, worrying it could antagonize certain teachers.

“This is in a school environment,” said Ann Melinger, whose son is a rising junior at LREI. “He shouldn’t have to feel he can’t take classes with certain teachers because he’s afraid they’re not going to like him, and that’s happening in our household. We’re selecting classes for next year and actively avoiding certain teachers.”


But even less overtly political schools have found themselves consumed by battles connected to the war in Gaza.

Collegiate School’s leader resigned this month after an ​​internal audit found “disquieting problems of religious and cultural bias” at the school, including hostility toward both Jews and Muslims.

Students at The Calhoun School blasted the administration in public letters for avoiding lessons about the conflict. Some described a fraught relationship between those on either side of the divide. “Many Calhouners have ties to the conflict, but the truth is, people are dying,” a Muslim student wrote. “I feel as if anytime I acknowledge that fact, I’ll be demeaned by someone of Jewish heritage for simply being objective.”


At Ethical Culture Fieldston School, where pro-Palestinian student activism — and backlash — exploded this spring, students are encouraged to join “affinity groups” that align with their racial, religious and cultural identities.

A photograph of young children wearing name tags with their names and identities (“Black,” “Jewish”) was widely shared by distressed parents this spring. A school spokeswoman said those name tags were used only at the beginning of the previous school year — and had been a mistake.

There are affinity groups for parents too.

Earlier this month, school officials sent an email urging families to “use this moment to collectively examine how to be in community with each other” and invited parents to a “listening session” about raising children in this complex and divisive moment, hosted by a group for families of color. But that meeting was abruptly canceled in favor of a meeting exclusively for parents of students of color. Most of the Jewish parents are white and were not welcome.