JFS is conducting an investigation into a politics teacher after he was said to have “strongly defended” Ken Livingstone’s statements on Zionism during an event at the school.
Ethan Saunders, who teaches politics and history at JFS, was present at a talk given to around 50 sixth-form students on Monday by Dr David Hirsh, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths, about his newly published book, Contemporary Left Antisemitism.
“There were questions from students and then a teacher stood up at the back and, in a fairly kind of belligerent way, said: ‘I don’t agree with anything you said’,” Dr Hirsh told the JC.
“I had talked a little bit about Ken Livingstone and Moshe Machover and the whole business about [their claims of] Nazis being like Zionists.
“He said that I hadn’t told the whole story to the students; it was a pretty clear allegation not only that I kind of got it wrong, but that I was speaking in bad faith.
“He said: ‘You haven’t explained to the students about the Ha’avara Agreement and the real collaboration between the Nazis and the Zionists. ‘You haven’t explained that it was Israel who was responsible for nurturing Hamas at the beginning, and Hamas is a creature of Israel’.”
Dr Hirsh had gone through the various claims made by Mr Livingstone that Hitler backed Zionism before he came to power in 1933, which have been criticised by leading historians. He had also shown the cartoon that Mr Livingstone had published in the early 1980s, showing Menachem Begin, the then Israeli Prime Minister, dressed as an SS officer, doing a Nazi salute.
Dr Hirsh said: “The teacher said that I hadn’t told the whole truth about that, that I hadn’t explained that Begin was a terrorist and about Sabra and Shatila [two Palestinian camps in Lebanon where Christian Lebanese forces carried out massacres while Israeli forces stood by, which happened while Mr Begin was Prime Minister].
“He strongly defended Livingstone - his defence of Livingstone was that Livingstone was correct.
“I’ve no idea what he teaches his students, but I have to tell you that [at this event] what he was clearly trying to teach his students was something which I would worry about. What he was trying to teach them was certainly a cause for concern.”
Martin Bright, a friend of Dr Hirsh, had been invited by the academic to the talk at the school in north-west London. He was also taken aback Mr Saunders’s comments.
The teacher, he said, had “intervened not in terms of saying ‘thank you for your interesting talk, but perhaps there are some points that I’d like to raise’, it was much more ‘you have intentionally omitted from your talk several facts that I believe the students should know’.
“So he was accusing Dr Hirsh of bad faith, essentially. He was saying, you presented this in this way, but here are four or five facts that you have omitted. They weren’t being represented as opinions or potential debating points. From the teacher’s perspective, these were facts that Dr Hirsh had intentionally omitted from his talk. It was hostile. It wasn’t offered in the spirit of debate. It was [in the sense of] ‘you’re wrong, I totally disagree with you and here’s why’.”
Mr Bright, a former political editor of the JC, said that disagreement was “unsettling for the students; a number of them came up to David afterwards and apologised, thanked him for his talk, and congratulated him on keeping his cool.
“His [Dr Hirsh’s] reaction was robust, I have to say. He did give as good as he got. From his perspective, this teacher was expressing the very views that he had identified in his book as being problematic.
“It’s a tricky issue; because of free speech, you want young people to debate and you want them to debate things in as open a way as possible. And clearly, in a situation where you have someone talking about antisemitism of the left in a Jewish school, then you don’t want it to be about preaching to the converted, you would hope that there would be some sort of debate and challenge, some sort of discussion of the other side of the argument might be appropriate.
“But what was shocking was that it was such a direct attack on Dr Hirsh’s position. It didn’t strike me as a particularly helpful way to introduce an alternative perspective.”
But one student who was at the event, and who is taught by Mr Saunders, defended the teacher, claiming he had not expressed support for Mr Livingstone’s comments on Zionism and Hitler.
The student said that Dr Hirsh’s talk was “very, very biased towards Israel. I don’t have a problem with that, I love Israel. But the only thing Mr Saunders was doing was adding contextual background, providing the other side of the argument”.
He said that in classes, Mr Saunders “keeps all of his views to himself. He never lets us know his political opinion. He does act as devil’s advocate - he defends both sides equally every time we have an argument. It has nothing to do with Zionism or anti-Zionism, it’s just to teach about politics.
“Every single person who is taught by Mr Saunders would agree that he’s not an anti-Zionist. He doesn’t inflict his opinions upon us. All he does is provide us with both sides of the argument in every single argument possible.”
The JC understands that the investigation into Mr Saunders’s comments will continue until early next week.
A spokesperson for the school said: “At JFS we provide a forum for students and staff to engage in high level debate about topical issues. We promote the ideals of free speech and expect our students and staff to respect and be tolerant of differing views and opinions. This includes a free exchange of ideas and giving students the ability and skill to draw their own conclusions about a wide array of issues.
"As a proudly Zionist school that is dedicated to promoting a love of Israel, discussions about the country form an integral part of our cross curricular provision. Our students are free thinkers with an eager curiosity to look beneath the PR/rhetoric and we support our student led societies in continuing to provide safe spaces for open debate.”