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Shelving of Panel on Mideast Roils School

By Elissa Gootman--New York Times--02/17/06

When the principal of the elite Fieldston school notified parents by e-mail of an assembly that was to feature two Palestinian speakers, he said that it would further the school's "progressive reputation" and that the Palestinian viewpoint was one that "few of us, students or faculty, are familiar with or can claim to understand."

Then came a flurry of e-mail messages and telephone calls from parents who objected to one of the speakers, who has advocated a boycott of Israel, as well as the fact that no Israelis were on the panel. On Tuesday, the high school's principal, John Love, sent another e-mail message canceling the event and explaining that the forum was "not appropriate given the sensitivity and complexity of the issue."

Now the controversy is roiling Fieldston, a private school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx with a mission to provide a "rigorous and humanistic education" and a long history of sending graduates to the Ivy League. It is the same sort of debate over Middle East politics that has engulfed universities in recent years. And in this case, both sides say they are speaking on behalf of the values of free expression and open-mindedness for which Fieldston prides itself.

Phone calls to Dr. Love were returned by Ginger Curwen, a school spokeswoman, who said the assembly was canceled "because it really wasn't a balanced" presentation. She added, "I don't think there was that much reaction."

But David Swartwout, a dean and history teacher, said that when the assembly was announced, "There are kids who were upset, there are parents who were upset." He said opinions remained divided.

"Some kids thought it needed to be canceled because there were issues we needed to explore more thoughtfully and carefully," he said. "Other kids are looking at this as an issue of censorship and free speech."

Students said that news of the cancellation spread on Tuesday night, and that by Wednesday morning, someone had papered the school walls with fliers featuring the slogan "Progressive Education + Censorship = Oxymoron," and quotations from Aristotle. A profanity and the word "censor" was scrawled on a plaque in a hallway, they said.

Yesterday, at Salvatores of Soho, a pizzeria near the school, a group of hyper-articulate sophomores on their lunch break dissected the controversy over slices and soda.

"Every hallway, every corridor, this is the topic," said Jake Chaplin, 16.

Evan Krasner, 16, said that while he was a "great believer in the First Amendment," he thought the panel was poorly planned. "How can this be a diverse debate? It's two sides of one side."

At another table, Ali McMillen, 16, said she was curious to hear what the panelists had to say, adding that Fieldston educators "always say they want to show us both sides of an argument and let us make our own decisions."

In some cases, the debate has moved into touchy territory. One flier featured a picture of a hand holding money and a slogan intended to imply that complaints from donors had shut the session down, students said. Ms. Curwen declined to respond to a question about any role donors might have had.

The controversy started on Friday, when Dr. Love, principal of the Fieldston Upper School — the 9th- through 12th-grade component of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School — sent an e-mail message to parents about the assembly, planned for next Thursday. He said it would feature two 10-minute speeches followed by questions.

Muhammad Muslih, a Long Island University professor, would speak in favor of a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he wrote, while Mazin Qumsiyeh, identified as an associate professor at Yale, would speak in favor of a "one-state solution." (A two-state solution envisions Israeli and Palestinian states side-by-side; a one-state solution envisions a single state in which Jews and Palestinians live together, and there is no longer a country of Israel.)

The Israeli perspective, Dr. Love wrote, would be the subject of a future assembly.

But in a school with a substantial Jewish population, that did not sit right.

Then Zach Tumin, a parent, sent an e-mail message to other parents, describing Dr. Qumsiyeh as an "unfortunate choice." He included portions of an Anti-Defamation League press release describing Dr. Qumsiyeh as an "extremist anti-Israel activist." The release was issued amid a controversy last month, in which the World Economic Forum published, then apologized for, a magazine with an article in which Dr. Qumsiyeh called for a boycott of Israel and compared Israel's policies toward Palestinians to apartheid.

In canceling the assembly, Dr. Love wrote to parents that he had received "many thoughtful phone calls and e-mails."

"Many of you who were most concerned about our plan framed your concerns in the most positive and constructive terms, and I deeply regret the unhappiness that my letter and support for this project has caused you," he wrote.

That note, however, generated even more unhappiness.

"It may not have been the best planned event, but the symbolism of canceling it is terrible," said Kenneth Roth, a Fieldston parent who is executive director of Human Rights Watch but said he was speaking privately. "It suggests that some parents who supposedly believe in progressive education and trust their kids to hear all sides of disputes don't extend that principle to disputes about Israel."

Renée Berliner Rush, a parent who opposed the assembly, was irate at the way in which it was canceled, saying school officials should have apologized for planning a one-sided forum in the first place.

"It basically blamed a group of parents, which is not a reason to cancel an assembly," she said. "This wasn't about Palestinians. This was about equality and bigotry and a fair, open forum."

She also pointed out that Dr. Qumsiyeh is no longer at Yale, saying school officials should also have apologized for inaccurately describing his credentials. In a telephone interview, Dr. Qumsiyeh said he left his position as an associate professor of genetics at the Yale School of Medicine more than a year ago and is running a clinical laboratory.

Dr. Qumsiyeh said that Harrison Howard, a history teacher, had contacted him a few months ago about participating in the assembly, and that the teacher is one of thousands of people to whom he sends e-mail messages. Dr. Qumsiyeh said he was disappointed when Dr. Love told him the event had been canceled.

Mr. Howard did not return two telephone calls seeking comment.

At an assembly on gender roles held yesterday, and in yet another e-mail message to parents, Dr. Love announced that a special "modified awareness day" about the Middle East would take place in the spring. The longer format, he wrote, would enable "the widest possible perspective on this complex issue."

Ms. Curwen, the school spokeswoman, explained: "This is a volatile and complicated topic for the world, let alone for a school. And we decided it deserved more than a 40-minute assembly."

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