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A Hebrew Teacher Called Herself an Anti-Zionist. She Was Fired.

A complaint arguing that a Reform synagogue violated New York labor law could point toward a new strategy for Palestinian rights advocates.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

ON JULY 22ND, Jessie Sander was fired from her job as a Hebrew teacher in the education program of the Westchester Reform Temple, a high-profile congregation in Scarsdale, New York. According to a legal complaint obtained by Jewish Currents, the dismissal—which occurred before Sander, 26, had even met her students—came in response to a blog post Sander co-wrote criticizing Israel.

Sander had been offered the job on May 10th, the same day that Israel initiated an aerial bombardment of Gaza that killed, according to the most recent count, 260 Palestinians over the course of 10 days. On May 20th, the day Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, Sander and a friend published the blog post, in which they condemned Israeli "settler-colonial violence” and referred to themselves as anti-Zionists. “Being anti-Zionist has made us even more invested in building Jewish community and fighting for justice for all Jews,” they wrote. “Jews in the United States must speak out against genocide in our name and state-sponsored murder disguised as support for Jewish people.”

Less than two months later, Sander began her job at the synagogue. She found her reception by the staff “welcoming and loving,” she said. On July 15th, when she had worked at the shul for just over a week, the school’s director and assistant director called her into a meeting, “purportedly to discuss the 11th and 12th grade programming for the 2021-22 school year,” according to the complaint. But minutes later the director, who is also the shul’s associate rabbi, diverted the conversation to the topic of Sander’s blog post; the complaint says that he advised her to consider describing her views with a term other than “anti-Zionist,” and suggested that her arguments could be read as “calling for a second Holocaust.” She was fired a week later.

The complaint, which she filed on January 25th with the Supreme Court of Westchester County, argues that her firing constituted a violation of New York labor law. While the facts of Sander’s case are familiar, the legal argument is not. The complaint states that, by firing her for expressing her anti-Zionist beliefs before she was hired, and in a forum outside of work, the synagogue violated a state labor statute that bars an employer from firing a worker for “recreational activities” such as “sports, games, hobbies, exercise, reading and the viewing of television, movies and similar material.” If Sander prevails, the legal argument could provide a model for other plaintiffs who face retaliation in the workplace for their views on Israel. A budding legal movement has sought to expand the protections for Palestinians in the US, as well as for anyone whose pro-Palestine speech or activity is suppressed; last April, for example, the organization Palestine Legal filed a case on behalf of a student at Florida State University that seeks to enshrine anti-Palestinian racism as a distinct form of discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Sander’s lead attorney, Robert Herbst, told Jewish Currents that hers is the first case to apply the statute’s protection of “recreational activities” to the matter of workers’ anti-Zionist speech. “We’re going to create some law,” he said.

THE FACTS OF THE CASE show a notable synagogue struggling with whether to recognize anti-Zionism as a legitimate mode of Jewish life. When Sander was called into a meeting with the school’s director and rabbi, David Levy, who had hired her, and its assistant director, Felicia Block, Levy asked if she knew that the shul is Zionist, and questioned her on how she understood the term “anti-Zionist.” When she explained her opposition to Israel’s military rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and her objection to “the colonization of Palestinian land, with the accompanying displacement of the indigenous population,” Levy responded with his question about whether she was “calling for a second Holocaust.” “It was just horrifying to me,” said Sander, who understood the question as an accusation of antisemitism.

Despite the tenor of the conversation, Sander did not leave the meeting expecting to be fired, she said. Toward the end of the discussion, Levy told Sander that he agreed with “90% of what you’re saying.” (Levy and the synagogue’s other rabbis have publicly criticized some of Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.) He urged her to consider describing herself with terms like “non-Zionist” or “post-Zionist” rather than “anti-Zionist,” according to the complaint. Though “there are some people here who would demand I fire you immediately,” he said, he believed the synagogue’s school community had room for members who were “wrestling with Israel.” “Never work at a place that would fire you for your beliefs,” Levy reportedly added. Following the discussion, he wrote an email to the president of the synagogue and another rabbi at the shul expressing “complete confidence” in Sander’s ability as a teacher, and describing her as “a good role model for our students.” (The complaint does not explain why Levy sent the email, or whether its recipients were already aware of Sander’s politics.) Levy forwarded the email directly to Sander. “I felt respected as a Jewish professional,” Sander said.

The meeting in which Levy fired Sander a week later was also attended by Eli Kornreich, the synagogue’s executive director. When Sander asked why she had been dismissed, Kornreich answered, “It’s just not a good fit.” Kornreich, Levy, another rabbi at the synagogue, and the shul itself are all named as defendants in the lawsuit. None of the defendants replied to Jewish Currents’ press inquiries. The case has stirred debate about whether and how to cultivate pluralistic Jewish communities. In an open letter to Westchester Reform Temple’s rabbis and board, 43 prominent Jewish scholars, rabbis, and public figures protested Sander’s firing. (The signatories include Jewish Currents board co-chair Kathleen Peratis and advisory board members Simone Zimmerman and Judith Butler, as well as Editor-at-Large Peter Beinart.) “We urge you to reconsider your decision,” the authors write. “You are surely aware that Ms. Sander’s views are shared by a growing segment of the Jewish community, who understand or are grappling with the role of Zionism in the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homes and land. Their commitment to Palestinian justice is fully consistent with the Jewish values of, and commitment to, pursuing justice that they learned in Hebrew school and from their families.”

Still, the judiciary, which has traditionally afforded religious communities significant autonomy in their internal affairs, may hesitate to weigh in on the issue, said Lee Adler, a labor and employment lawyer who teaches at Cornell University. “The court might look at this as a fundamentally religious matter,” he said. Such an interpretation would reflect a political climate in which both the State of Israel and the American Jewish establishment treat Zionism as inextricable from Judaism. The complaint seeks to head off a ruling that frames Sander’s firing as a matter of religious disagreement by sharply distinguishing between the two. “Nothing in [Sander’s] job description required adherence to any particular political point of view about Israel, Zionism, the Palestinians, or Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians,” it says. The complaint also argues that Sander’s job, teaching students the Hebrew language, “was secular rather than religious, and no religious ordination or training was required.”

The lawsuit will also have to convince the judiciary to accept a relatively novel use of the labor statute. Though the statute was written in 1993 “to make it so that employers could not fire people willy-nilly for things they did away from work,” Adler said, more recent case law has eroded its protections; the 1995 ruling in State v. Wal-Mart Stores, for example, affirmed employers’ power to fire workers for off-the-clock activity. Though this presents Sander with an uneven playing field, it also means that her case, if successful, could buck the trend of narrowly interpreting the statute.

Whatever the outcome of Sander’s case, anti-Zionist Jews are forcing a reckoning in liberal Zionist communities in the US. A poll conducted in 2021, shortly after Israel’s May assault on Gaza, found that 25% of American Jews consider Israel an apartheid state. “I would guess that in the next five years, there will be anti-Zionist members in the majority of liberal synagogues in the US,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, one of the letter’s signatories and the former deputy director of the anti-Israeli-occupation group Jewish Voice for Peace. “Having to play pastoral roles for anti-Zionist Jews is going to change how rabbis think about who their responsibilities are toward.”

Since she was fired six months ago, Sander has worked as a freelance tutor; she says she has struggled to pay rent despite juggling four part-time jobs. She is still seeking a place in Jewish education, and recently began a Master’s degree in Jewish professional studies. “I will find a Reform Jewish community,” she said. “I know it exists, and I will get there.”


(c) 2022, Jewish Currents


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