Sager Solomon Schechter Day School was one of my favorite places. It was where I learned Hebrew, found my love for Judaism, met some of my best friends, and gained important critical thinking skills that I have continued to develop. Solomon Schechter set the stage for me to become the person I am today. I am a proud Solomon Schechter alumnus (class of ’04) and I believe in Day School education.
However, today I do not write as a proud alumnus, I write as a worried alumnus. Today Solomon Schechter will be presenting a “Building Blocks Workshop” on the 50th year of “reunification” of Jerusalem. Students are building a scale model of Jerusalem out of Legos. My worry is not with the activity itself. As a teacher, I encourage creativity and think that seeing things built in Lego can be an incredible learning tool.
What the students are supposed to learn at Schechter about the “reunification” does worry me. 50 years ago, Jerusalem was not reunified but occupied. Teddy Kollek, the longtime mayor of Jerusalem, expanded the municipal limits of the city to include multiple Arab villages that had never been considered part of Jerusalem in order to give Jerusalem an airport. The airport failed but, the villages are now still in Jerusalem, now called East Jerusalem.
The differences between East and West Jerusalem are stark. The city operates on separate and unequal terms, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI); there are three welfare offices in East Jerusalem, compared to 18 in West Jerusalem and social worker cases in East Jerusalem are approximately double those in West Jerusalem. There is a chronic shortage of over 1,000 classrooms in East Jerusalem but there is no such shortage in West Jerusalem. In addition, the Israeli government has revoked the residency status of over 14,000 people despite their residency in the same villages before 1967. Even the sewage is worse with 50 km of sewage tanks missing in East Jerusalem leading to a reliance on septic tanks that frequently overflow creating hazardous conditions for the residents in East Jerusalem.
It is clear that Jerusalem is not a “reunified” city that works together but a city where one third of the population is systematically neglected and abused.
To celebrate this system as 50 years of “reunification” is to present a dangerous narrative. A narrative that excludes Palestinian and Arab voices from the discussion. That Solomon Schechter is complicit in telling this narrative to its current students makes me worry about what else the students are learning about Israel and Palestine. Schechter needs to present another narrative that includes Palestinian voices and stories including questions that are brought from the Israeli victory in 1967. Simply calling it “Jerusalem reunification” excludes the voices of one third of the Jerusalem population and makes it impossible for kids to learn about the complicated place that Jerusalem is today.
I also know that Solomon Schechter is not alone in their treatment of occupation in the Jewish world. Throughout this year Jewish institutions have celebrated “50 years of reunification” instead of grappling with the horror of the occupation and what that “victory” of 1967 has meant. However, Schechter holds a unique place in the Jewish community as an educational institution. Schechter has an obligation to get students to think critically about everything, including the actions of the State of Israel.
It is for that reason that I am part of the #YouNeverToldMe campaign with IfNotNow, a movement to end American Jewish support for the occupation, to tell Jewish institutions that they should teach the occupation and critically examine Israel and Israeli history in the same way that they critically examine every other aspect of life. I hope that Schechter reconsiders their decision and uses this building block activity as a teaching tool to talk about how the daily injustice and damage of occupation continue to impact Israel/Palestine.