Yeshiva University finds itself immersed this spring in a tale of two honorees. One, a former president of the United States, is accused of anti-Israel bias. The other, a leading Y.U. rabbi, is accused of racism and a disregard for victims of child sex abuse.
Hershel Schachter, the Y.U. rabbi in question, has also been criticized in years past for suggesting that the prime minister of Israel be shot if he compromises with the Palestinians on Jerusalem, and for appearing to compare women to monkeys.
But while an event organized by Y.U.’s rabbinic school to honor Schachter in May has aroused little opposition, the decision by a student-run journal at Y.U.’s law school to honor former president Jimmy Carter on April 10 sparked swift, furious and widespread criticism.
Indeed, the angry reaction to Carter’s appearance seemed to dwarf even the recent outrage over allegations that Y.U. failed to deal adequately with suspected physical, emotional and sexual abuse of teenage students at its Manhattan high school throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
The reason for the difference is simple, according to Samuel Heilman, a sociologist of American Jewry, at Queens College. “The Carter problem [exists because of] a very powerful, right-wing, pro-Israel stance within Yeshiva University,” Heilman said. “Whereas opposition to what Schachter said comes more from the liberal side of the spectrum, which is not as well represented at Yeshiva University [just] as it is not well represented these days in Orthodoxy.”
Schachter sparked controversy in March when excerpts of a talk he had delivered a month earlier in London appeared online.
In the talk, Schachter made a series of controversial statements. Among them, he claimed that state prisons were dangerous for Jews because they could be locked up “with a shvartze, in a cell with a Muslim, a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.” He also suggested that instead of immediately contacting police regarding an allegation of child sex abuse, the allegation should first be taken before a committee of psychologists trained in Torah to ensure that the child is not lying.
Schachter’s comments could not have come at a worse time for Y.U. The school hired an international law firm last December to conduct an investigation following allegations, published in the Forward, that two former employees of Y.U.’s high school, Rabbi George Finkelstein and Rabbi Macy Gordon, had abused students. Some students said that they or their parents warned Y.U. of the abuse, but their pleas were ignored. Finkelstein and Gordon deny the allegations.
Y.U.’s chancellor, Rabbi Norman Lamm, told the Forward that during his tenure as president of Y.U., from 1976 to 2003, staff who were believed to have had “improper sexual activity” with students were quietly forced out and law enforcement authorities were not informed.
Following the disclosure of Schachter’s comments on child sexual abuse, Y.U. initially distanced itself from the remarks. After being contacted by the Anti-Defamation League, Y.U. condemned Schachter’s use of the word “shvartze” as “inappropriate” and “offensive.”
Nevertheless, Y.U. has continued with its plans to fete Schachter as “guest of honor” at its annual Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary dinner, which will be held this year at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, on May 1.
An article posted to Y.U.’s about the event lauds Schachter as a “renowned posek,” or a decisor on Jewish law, and cites his “distinguished association and career” with Y.U. since 1967.
So far, only one RIETS alum has publicly protested Y.U. honoring Schachter. In a letter posted online March 21, Barry Dolinger of Congregation Beth Sholom, in Providence, R.I., stated that Lamm’s and Schachter’s behavior, as well as Y.U.’s inaction, “have caused unbelievable chilul Hashem [desecration of God]…causing many of the faithful to give up or shun observance, Rabbis, God, and causing less observant Jews and non-Jews to view our people as backwards, self-serving, or inauthentic.” Because of this, Dolinger said, he would boycott the RIETS dinner.
In an interview, Dolinger told the Forward that he feared that negative stories emanating from Y.U. contributed to people becoming cynical about Modern Orthodoxy or leaving the movement altogether. “I don’t think that, with all due respect, the leadership understands that this is killing us,” he said. Dolinger added that dozens of people had contacted him to offer their support.
Still, no one posted a public comment underneath Dolinger’s letter. And the Forward is aware of no other rabbi who has complained publicly about the event.
Psychotherapist Stacey Klein found herself in a similar situation when she launched an online petition January 14, calling on Y.U. to commit to making public its forthcoming report into abuse allegations. Klein, a Y.U. alum, said that many people were too scared of appearing to “break with Y.U.” to sign the petition. Three months on, only 260 people have signed.
Gary Emmanuel did not have time to compose a petition against the April 10 presentation of Carter’s award. He only found out on April 3 — and confirmed a couple of days later — that Cardozo’s Journal of Conflict Resolution planned to honor Carter with its International Advocate for Peace Award.
Emmanuel, along with many other alumni, fumed when he heard that Carter, a harsh critic of Israeli policies on the occupied West Bank, was being honored at a Y.U.-affiliated institution.
Emmanuel launched a new group, the Coalition of Concerned Cardozo Alumni, and a simple website, Shame on Cardozo, on April 6. Within three days, galvanized by media attention — including in the Forward — more than 5,000 people had visited the site, including about 1,300 people who took an online poll about whether Carter should be honored (87% were against).
Emmanuel said that over just a few days, dozens of irate alumni copied him on emails to Y.U. administrators, vowing that they would cease contributing to the institution.
One alum threatened to stage an act of civil disobedience by physically blocking Carter from entering Cardozo. Political commentator Alan Dershowitz weighed in, telling Haaretz that Carter “never met a terrorist he didn’t like” and that he was “unworthy” of the award. The National Council of Young Israel demanded that Y.U. rescind its invitation to Carter.
On April 8, Y.U. President Richard Joel was forced to issue a statement distancing the institution from the award, which he stressed was given by a “student-run” publication. Joel underscored that he strongly disagreed with “many of President Carter’s statements and actions” in regard to the Middle East.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, who has been a spiritual adviser at RIETS for almost 40 years, said it had not gone unnoticed that Carter’s award appeared to have generated “more concern” than the issues of alleged abuse at Y.U. itself and Schachter’s recent controversial remarks. Blau pointed out that Cardozo is a professional graduate school, wholly secular in nature, though affiliated with Y.U. Its alumni, he said, have very different concerns than those who graduate from RIETS and from Yeshiva College, the university’s undergraduate school. Indeed, anti-Carter activist Emmanuel, who graduated from Cardozo’s Masters of Laws program, said he was unaware of the child sex abuse controversy at Y.U. and of the firestorm over Schachter’s comments.
But Emmanuel said that comparing the two issues is unfair.
The primary reason his campaign attracted so much attention so quickly, Emmanuel explained, is that he is heavily involved in Israel advocacy and has good contacts for quickly disseminating information to the correct people.
“I don’t think you’re giving enough credit to who we know and how we get this out,” Emmanuel said. “This wasn’t a fluke.”