A short first person account in the Jewish Week got some attention on mondoweiss; though a local and kind of micro story, as a window into deeper societal trends it’s of considerable interest. In the story Josh Blumberg, then a high school senior, now college freshman, relates how he heard that his high school in the New York suburb Croton-on-Hudson was giving a distinguished graduate award to John Mearsheimer, the esteemed University of Chicago professor made more famous by his authorship (with Steve Walt) of the ground-breaking best-seller The Israel Lobby.

As a participant in “Write-On-Israel,” which trains young people how to advocate on behalf of Israel, the young man sprung into action. Not by trying to organize protests or pickets against Mearsheimer (which might have attracted at least three or four people in Croton-on-Hudson), but by writing letters to high school and school board officials,   accusing Mearsheimer of anti-Semitism. Clearly school officials were more than a little bit spooked, this being the most toxic of political accusations, and there appeared an announcement that the award was postponed indefinitely. And then the school board convened a committee to study and review the matter. And then, the young man relates– to his surprise!–that while home from college on vacation he learned that the committee had gone ahead and given Mearsheimer the distinguished graduate award anyway.

The comments responding to the piece are interesting. Most think the school discharged its responsibilities well by considering, then rejecting, young Josh’s wishes. An interesting note by Jerry Haber, worth quoting in full, finds something to praise for everyone:

I would like to congratulate John Mearsheimer for being awarded the Distinguished Graduate award from Croton Harmon high school; the school for responding to Mr. Blumberg’s objections by convening the committee; the committee for making the right choice over Mr. Blumberg’s (and other’s) objections; and, finally, Mr. Blumberg himself, for doing what he felt was right and acting responsibly according to his convictions. All parties behaved admirably, and the school should be proud of alums like Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Blumberg.

Around forty years ago, I was in a similar situation. My high school had invited a former alumnus, a retired State Department diplomat, to speak to the students, mostly non-Jewish, on the Middle East. At the time, I had been indoctrinated with the classic Zionist narrative that nowadays very few thinking Israelis would accept. I protested to the school, which as a result decided to invite a pro-Israeli speaker for balance.

It took me around thirty years of reading and thinking to be weaned away from the hasbara (It wasn’t called that at the time) that I had been fed at my afternoon Hebrew school. I also had to make aliyah, serve in the army, and see my children serve in the army before I came to the conclusion that the pro-Israel speaker was much less correct than the retired diplomat. No doubt I, too, may have thought someone like him to be “anti-Semitic,” simply because I had been predisposed to think that way by the indoctrination that I had undergone. I know now, having read Prof. Mearsheimer’s work and after some personal contact, that this is a false and defamatory charge, and that the Israel Lobby book, agree with it or not, has nothing to do with anti-Semitism; to think otherwise is to trivialize and politicize the term, as much of the study of anti-Semitism in recent years has indeed been trivialized and politicized.

I feel less congratulatory towards the young man than Haber. I don’t see much of a  parallel between petitioning for an additional speaker from a different perspective and writing letters behind the scenes trying to besmirch an award recipient’s character. I’m struck also by the young accuser’s enormous sense of ideological entitlement. I can recall being eighteen, and twenty-two, and getting involved in various campaigns and protests.  But I can’t imagine thinking that I could write some letters leveling false and defamatory accusations against an eminent, highly scrutinized professor, with the more or less complete expectation that I would get what I wanted. Granted, American society has changed a lot since 1970, but still.

I too would commend the school board for courage in resisting a neo-McCarthyite smear attempt. Nevertheless, the entire story gives off a faint whiff of totalitarianism, of those societies in which responsible middle-aged people tiptoe around in fear of accusations from self-righteous and highly indoctrinated young people. Yes, the school board was courageous, but why should courage in this realm even be necessary?