Slanderous essay wins Carnegie-Mellon award

Ben Zoma says:
Who is wise?
The one who learns from every person…
Who is brave?
The one who subdues his negative inclination…
Who is rich?
The one who is appreciates what he has…
Who is honored?
The one who gives honor to others…
(Talmud – Avot 4:1)

I lived for some years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is not a bad place at all, although the winters are very cold and once the sun didn’t come out for 43 days (I counted). It has several top -notch universities, including the University of Pittsburgh where I was a graduate student, and Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU).

Every year CMU runs a contest for student writing about racial issues, on the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. This year’s high school  winners were a African-American girl, Erika Drain, and a Jewish boy, Jesse Lieberfeld. They are both juniors at the Winchester Thurston School, a private school whose main campus is located in the city’s Shadyside neighborhood. Tuition for the 11th grade is $23,600 at Winchester Thurston, so one assumes that they have only the best teachers and facilities available to them.

Their essays were published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, here. Erika Drain’s, about being called “not black enough” because of her academic achievement, was perceptive and nuanced. Jesse Lieberfeld’s was notable for several reasons:

  • His clearly expressed disdain for Jews and Judaism
  • His completely one-sided understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • The fact that his parents, teachers, rabbi, etc. didn’t succeed (or try) to introduce at least a bit of reality into his thinking
  • The fact that CMU chose this offensive piece as one of the top two high school essays

He begins with an arguably antisemitic statement:

I once belonged to a wonderful religion. I belonged to a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world — and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. Once, I thought that I truly belonged in this world of security, self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence and perfect moral aesthetic. I thought myself to be somewhat privileged early on. It was soon revealed to me, however, that my fellow believers and I were not part of anything so flattering.

One would think that someone along the way would have explained to him that normative Judaism — liberal or Orthodox — does not teach that Jews are superior to others, only that they bear a greater moral burden, that of following the commandments. It’s unfortunate if he or his family are intellectual snobs or enjoy self-pity, but the Jewish people are not responsible for his psychological issues.

…as I came to learn more about our so-called “conflict” with the Palestinians, I grew more concerned. I routinely heard about unexplained mass killings, attacks on medical bases and other alarmingly violent actions for which I could see no possible reason. “Genocide” almost seemed the more appropriate term, yet no one I knew would have ever dreamed of portraying the war in that manner; they always described the situation in shockingly neutral terms. Whenever I brought up the subject, I was always given the answer that there were faults on both sides, that no one was really to blame, or simply that it was a “difficult situation.”

Nobody told him, apparently, that Operation Cast Lead came after some 8,000 rockets were fired at random by Hamas into Israeli towns. Nobody explained to him about the Second Intifada, the suicide bombings and drive-by shootings. Nobody told him about the surprise attack in 1973, the plans to wipe out the Jewish residents of Israel in 1967, the ethnic cleansing of Jews in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem in 1948. Nobody mentioned the 800,000 Jews kicked out of Arab countries after the War of Independence. Nobody explained how the Arab world had been trying to extirpate the Jewish presence from the Middle East for at least the last 100 years.

No, they just told him that “there were faults on both sides.”

And the connection to Dr. King?

In that moment, I realized how similar the two struggles were — like the white radicals [sic] of that era, we controlled the lives of another people whom we abused daily, and no one could speak out against us. It was too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered too much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no way part of a “conflict” — the term “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” was no more accurate than calling the Civil Rights Movement the “Caucasian/African-American Conflict.”

In both cases, the expression was a blatant euphemism: it gave the impression that this was a dispute among equals and that both held an equal share of the blame. However, in both, there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the side of the oppressors. I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason. I was part of a delusion.

No one could speak out? Apparently Mr. Lieberfeld was not only allowed to speak out, but was given an award for it.

Concerning his absurd analogy, I would ask him if black people fired missiles into American cities? If they made a habit of blowing up buses on our streets? If African-Americans regularly proclaimed their desire to rid the country of whites and were supported in this by 23 neighboring nations, one of which was developing nuclear weapons? If black heroes, instead of Dr. King, were people like Palestinian hero Dalal Mughrabi, who led a bloody terrorist attack that killed 35 Israelis, including 13 children? Talk about delusions!

Was his expensive education so poor that he is unaware of the differences between the struggle of African-Americans to overcome official and unofficial racism in their country, and the viciously racist 100-year effort to kick the Jewish people out of their ancestral homeland?

Did it occur to him that his sources of ‘information’ might possibly be biased? Apparently not.

Finally, Mr. Lieberfeld gives Judaism one last chance — and it fails the test:

I decided to make one last appeal to my religion. If it could not answer my misgivings, no one could.

The next time I attended a service, there was an open question-and-answer session about any point of our religion. I wanted to place my dilemma in as clear and simple terms as I knew how. I thought out my exact question over the course of the 17-minute cello solo that was routinely played during service. Previously, I had always accepted this solo as just another part of the program, yet now it seemed to capture the whole essence of our religion: intelligent and well-crafted on paper, yet completely oblivious to the outside world (the soloist did not have the faintest idea of how masterfully he was putting us all to sleep).

When I was finally given the chance to ask a question, I asked: “I want to support Israel. But how can I when it lets its army commit so many killings?” I was met with a few angry glares from some of the older men, but the rabbi answered me.

“It is a terrible thing, isn’t it?” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.”

I’d like to believe the rabbi did better than that, and that Lieberfeld was just not paying attention. But today, who knows?

I blame the family, the teachers, the rabbi, and CMU’s selection committee who validated this exercise in ignorant slander. But the responsibility for what he said lies with only one person, Mr. Lieberfeld himself. He’s old enough to accept it.

I suggest that he reread the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Zoma at the beginning of this piece, and then learn the truth about Israel — and some humility, while he’s at it. Dr. King certainly would have approved.


Update [2008 PDT]: Elder of Ziyon also discussed this essay in “An open letter to 17-year old Jesse Lieberfeld.”

Update [2011 PDT]: Jesse Lieberfeld is the son of Daniel Lieberfeld, an associate professor at Duquesne University, another well-known Pittsburgh institution. Daniel Lieberfeld has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see a list of his publications here), and teaches an undergraduate course on it. From what I’ve been able to find so far, he seems to take a center-left perspective.

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One Response to “Slanderous essay wins Carnegie-Mellon award”

  1. juvanya says:

    Sounds like a Reform “synagogue”. That should explain everything.