Harris-Gershon gets Grinspoon nod

Harris-Gershon gets Grinspoon nod

David Harris-Gershon (Photo provided)
David Harris-Gershon (Photo provided)

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 tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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