David Harris-Gershon, a Community Day School teacher who has been the subject of a national controversy because of his views on Israel, has been selected as the local winner of the Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, the Agency for Jewish Learning announced last week.
Harris-Gershon, who teaches Jewish Studies — including holidays, prayers, and books of the Bible — to fourth-, fifth- and eighth-graders, was nominated for the award by Avi Baran Munro, head of school at CDS.
“David was chosen as the recipient of this award because he is an exceptionally talented teacher at our school,” Munro said in an email. “He has ignited interest and excitement in Jewish Studies among our fourth-, fifth- and eighth-grade students. He has brought to our students a level of critical thinking, passion for inquiry and great love for our teachings, our heritage and Israel.”
Harris-Gershon is an author and blogger who often writes about Israeli-Palestinian issues. A column he wrote in July 2012 for “Tikkun Daily” titled “Today, I’m coming out in favor of BDS [Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Against Israel)” prompted the Hillel chapter at the University of California, Santa Barbara to revoke an invitation for him to be the keynote speaker at the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara’s annual Israel education event in April.
Harris-Gershon had been invited to speak about his book, “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife,” a memoir that recounts his reconciliation with the family of a Palestinian terrorist. But when Santa Barbara Hillel leaders learned of his position on BDS, they revoked his invitation.
Likewise, the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center canceled his March engagement there in line with its policy against hosting BDS supporters. When the JCC canceled his appearance, J Street arranged for him to speak at a Washington library at the end of April.
Harris-Gershon’s upcoming appearance at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation in Philadelphia, also engendered some controversy. Although the board of the congregation voted to allow Harris-Gershon to speak about his book at the synagogue on May 18, the congregation’s president, Arlene Fickler, said it was a “very difficult decision” that the board struggled with over several hours, according to the Jewish Exponent .
Joseph Pruder, the director of StandWithUs’ Philadelphia office, has called for the synagogue to rescind its invitation to Harris-Gershon.
“Harris-Gershon is certainly free to express his opinions elsewhere, but Jewish communal organizations should not give a platform for those who abet a movement like BDS,” Pruder wrote in the April 24 issue of the Exponent .
Pruder also said that Harris-Gershon uses his Twitter account to “retweet the messages of some of the fiercest anti-Zionists who purvey gross distortions about Israel such as Ali Abunimah, Max Blumenthal and Stephen Walt, a co-author of the infamous book, ‘The Israel Lobby.’ Why would a synagogue host a man with these views?”
Since the Santa Barbara Hillel controversy, Harris-Gershon has said that although he publicly came out “in favor of BDS” in his column, he is only a supporter of BDS as “a standard and not as a movement.”
“People are having difficulty with the nuance,” he told The Chronicle in an interview earlier this year. Harris-Gershon clarified that nuance in a Jan. 5 column he wrote for Tikkun: “When I endorsed the concept of boycotts and sanctions in 2012, my intention was not to join the BDS movement or endorse its outcome (as Haaretz noted). Rather, it was to express the idea that economic sanctions are a legitimate, nonviolent method for countering undesirable policies and change behavior, regardless of the country being targeted.”
Harris-Gershon’s politics were not taken into account when Munro and Tzippy Mazer, head of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at CDS, decided to nominate him for the Grinspoon Award, said Munro.
“Our teachers’ political views are distinct from their work at our school,” she said. “His views were not taken into account when we were deciding whether to honor him because this is an award for excellence in teaching. He is more than worthy of that. We know that he infuses in our students a love for Israel and a love for their Jewish heritage, and that is what he’s being recognized for.”
The Grinspoon Award is supported in Pittsburgh by the Barbara and Lester Parker Fund for a Jewish Future Endowment, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the AJL. Its purpose is to recognize outstanding educators in Jewish day schools, preschools and afterschool religious schools, according to Ed Frim, executive director of the AJL.
The AJL receives nominations from Jewish schools throughout the area. A committee composed of past award winners and other educators chooses the annual recipient of the award, said Frim. The winner receives a $1,000 stipend, plus a monetary allowance for professional development.
Because the committee only looks to the quality of a nominee’s teaching skills, his personal politics are not considered, said Frim. “BDS wouldn’t have come into it. That is not information that would have been relevant to the process we conduct. We can’t go there. We don’t have the capacity to assess someone’s politics. I know that was not discussed as part of the process nor should it have been. It is not our role to screen that way. He got the award because he is a fabulous teacher and a wonderful Jewish educator.”
Harris-Gershon has been teaching at CDS for four years and said it has been a rewarding experience. “My mandate at Community Day is to teach Jewish texts, which I do so in a dedicated and thoughtful way,” said Harris-Gershon. “While I’m honored to receive this award, I wasn’t surprised that my personal politics didn’t prevent me from winning, since my personal politics have absolutely nothing to do with my teaching.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)