'Victims Becoming the Perpetrators': Remarks about Jews at Elite Private School Spark Outrage

ADL blasts Kayum Ahmed's address to high schoolers at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School

November 26, 2019

Remarks by a guest speaker at an elite New York City private school who charged that Jews have fallen into a historical cycle in which the oppressed become the oppressor have sparked internal controversy—and elicited the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League.

Addressing high school students at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School last Thursday, A. Kayum Ahmed, the director of access and accountability at the Open Society Foundations and a former CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission, said he had observed "the fluidity of those who are victims becoming the perpetrators."

"I use the same example in talking about the Holocaust, that Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the state of Israel today perpetuate violence against Palestinians that are unthinkable," Ahmed said.

Though Ethical Culture Fieldston is among the most liberal of New York City’s elite private schools—the school says it is committed to providing students a "progressive education" and a series of "Awareness Days" on issues like "Undoing ‘Slut’ Shaming and Sexual Bullying"—Ahmed’s remarks sparked outrage from some students and parents.

A spokeswoman for Fieldston declined to comment.

Ahmed’s speech to the high school students came a week after school administrators postponed a scheduled appearance from the renowned New York University professor Jonathan Haidt. Remarks from the social psychologist, whose work has focused in part on increasing viewpoint diversity, were rescheduled from mid-November to April because "the community was not ready" to hear his views, according to the two junior students who invited him to campus. The Washington Free Beacon viewed video of the two students lamenting the administration’s reasoning, as well as the school’s monolithic political culture, from the podium where Haidt was to have spoken.

The Free Beacon is not disclosing the identity of the students because they are minors. Haidt declined to comment on the incident.

Founded by the liberal billionaire George Soros and led by former Obama administration and Democratic Party official Patrick Gaspard, Ahmed's employer, the Open Society Foundations, is a nonprofit grant-making organization that aims to promote "tolerance, transparency, and open debate," according to its website.

Neither Ahmed nor the Open Society Foundations responded to a request for comment.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, strongly criticized Ahmed’s remarks and the place of his views in an educational environment.

"To blame the victim in this manner was really outrageous and these virulent views—saying that Jews who escaped the Holocaust are now the perpetrators of injustice—has no place in our society and certainly not in our schools where we’re educating young people," Greenblatt told the Free Beacon.

It is not the first time that Fieldston, where, according to one estimate, tuition tops the $48,000 mark, has grappled with the issue of anti-Semitism. In 2015, after a sixth grader drew swastikas in an art class, according to a New York Post report, administrators explained that in some cultures it is considered a symbol of peace. Two years later, the departure of the lower school principal became a cause of controversy after he charged that the school's headmaster had complained about Zionists and Jews.

School administrators have sought to quell the controversy. On Monday evening, Fieldston’s chief operating officer, Kyle Wilkie-Glass, circulated to the school’s trustees a message from upper school principal Nigel Furlonge about Ahmed’s remarks. The message, Wilkie-Glass told the trustees, was to be sent to students and their families later Monday evening. But the note was never sent.

"Respecting differences and engaging in the necessary dialogue and discussion to move ourselves and our larger community forward is foundational to our school’s values," Furlonge wrote in that message, which reached the school's trustees but not students or their families more broadly.

The ADL’s Greenblatt, who reviewed the statement, said that "there is a very clear and unmistakable difference between dialogue and demonization."

"To be entirely clear it is ok to criticize the policies of the Israeli government, but it is profane to use the Holocaust to demonize the Jewish people," he said.