Last year, my senior year at Croton-Harmon High School in Croton on Hudson, New York, I discovered that the school was going to confer its Distinguished Graduate Award to Dr. John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which asserts that there is no moral or strategic reason for the United States to maintain its close relationship with Israel. He blames the relationship on the Israel Lobby, which he goes on to define as being made up primarily of American Jews who exert undue influence to the point of control over the media, Congress, and every American President in living memory and beyond. In the end, he talks about how this influence might be curtailed.
As a student in Write On For Israel, The Jewish Week advocacy program for high school students, I had been aware of Dr. Mearsheimer and his book. But I had no idea that he was a graduate of my high school.
Now my school had decided to bestow a high honor upon him (Class of 1965). The award nomination form states: “The Croton-Harmon High School Hall of Distinguished Graduates honors Croton-Harmon High School graduates who have truly distinguished themselves in their chosen career and/or have significantly and positively impacted the lives and welfare of their community.”
After learning about the planned award about a month before it was set to take to take place, in December 2011, I sent a series of emails to the school superintendent, principal, vice principal and school board, explaining why the award should not be granted to Dr. Mearsheimer, informing them of his endorsement of Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who? which was widely criticized as blatantly anti-Semitic, and the anti-Semitic nature of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy that Dr. Mearsheimer co-authored with Stephen Walt.
I met privately on multiple occasions with the school principal and superintendant regarding this issue. I was told that they were less interested in Mearsheimer’s endorsement of someone else’s book than what he himself had written, and that the issue was one of free speech. Further, I was told that the decision was “under review” and that all of the information that I provided was being considered. I also became aware that as a result of my emails there were objections from members of the school board.
On November 11, the superintendant sent an email saying that “the Distinguished Graduate Ceremony originally scheduled for December 5, 2011 has been postponed indefinitely ‘due to concerns expressed by some members of the Croton community’ as well as other factors.” On December 14, another email from the superintendant stated: “we are going to revisit the ‘Distinguished Graduate’ process next fall with a new district-wide committee that will develop clear rubrics and a solid vetting process to use moving forward. In essence, we will be starting from the beginning next fall.” It seemed like I had reached someone who realized and knew what a mistake it would be to honor Dr. Mearsheimer with this award. I felt like my case had been heard, that the school had come to its senses, and that this issue had been laid to rest.
A year later, visiting home for Thanksgiving, I saw on the front page of the local newspaper a photo of a smiling Dr. Mearsheimer as a distinguished graduate honoree. I was shocked and frustrated to read that the school had chosen him despite everything that had happened during the previous school year.
Why was the award granted despite the concerns expressed by the Croton community that the superintendent, and presumably other school officials, had previously thought to be prohibitive? Had the new committee that was to be formed actually materialized, and did it decide that Dr. Mearsheimer was worthy of the award? Why were objections from school board members, which I learned were raised again in 2012, also deemed to be insignificant?
On January 4, I sent an email to the superintendent, principal, vice-principal, and school board asking these questions, as well as expressing my disappointment in this decision. I told them that Croton-Harmon High School officials owe the community an explanation as to why they felt that Dr. Mearsheimer is to be regarded as a role model for the students of the Croton-Harmon School District. I also offered the school the opportunity to defend its decision and make the reasoning behind it clear. I explained that there is an opportunity to advance the educational process through an open forum involving parents, faculty, alumni, and students, telling them that I would be delighted to work on such a program if the school is willing.
In a response from the superintendent on January 7, he stated to me that additional research had been done in a newly formed committee that included “a board of education representative and a former board member, and a full representation was achieved including members of the faculty, administration, and student body (which was lacking on the original process). After extensive research and discussion, the group did not find Mr. Mearsheimer to be anti-Semitic. While there were some in the community who might not agree, the committee believed it needed to make an informed decision based on their research and is comfortable with that decision.”
I find it hard to believe that this group did not identify the discriminatory nature of Dr. Mearsheimer’s work or his endorsement of Atzmon’s book. I am disappointed that they would grant this award to someone who has so greatly and vehemently attacked a minority group for exercising its rights. I think it is important that the light of day be shined on this situation and I hope it can serve as a learning experience for others.
Josh Blumberg is a student at the University of Michigan College of Engineering and a Write-On For Israel alumnus.
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