This past Wednesday, Hebrew Academy High School kicked off its first Debate Midrash to discuss the recent incidents in Charlottesville, Virgina.
The debate started with a discussion about the tearing down of monuments, and evolved into a lively exchange about freedom of speech. Some students and faculty protested that it should have limits, and others said that hate speech, no matter how cruel, is still covered by our constitutional rights.
Rabbi Ney started the debate by posing a question of whether it is right to remove Confederate statues by comparing their historical relevance to that of Auschwitz. Destroying the concentration camp might remove all physical evidence of the Holocaust in the future, and claims that the Holocaust never occurred may become more credible.
Teacher Ms. Baumgarten voiced her opinion supporting the removal of the monuments.
“The difference between Auschwitz and a statue of Robert E. Lee, one is celebrating someone who has, you know, values that we don’t hold dear, and not just that we don’t have their values, but they’re offensive values, they’re hurtful, they’re racist. Whereas Auschwitz is preserving something to tell a story of history, not celebrating what the Nazis did.”
The other view of the discussion was presented by Mrs. Schapiro.
“The statues of the Confederacy (should not be removed) because we are judging them today by standards that was not part of their culture, and so you cannot make a statement that Robert E. Lee, let’s say was a racist. He was a product of his society at the time that he lived. He also was a tremendous statesman. Walking around and removing statues and changing names clears part of our history.”
Adding to the statement that the blame cannot be put on the people who were raised to think a certain way, Michal Cohen (12th) said, “All these people that are in that rally, they don’t know better. They grew up saying ‘Oh, Jews are bad.’ I think it’s our job that we go to school, we really know both sides. It’s our job, really, to educate those people. We can’t go around judging them because they grew up that way.”
Though some may agree, this statement sparked a humorous, yet respectful, sibling conflict. “Michal, I have to disagree with you,” Cohen’s freshman brother, Yehuda, began. “It’s true that people who have a certain mindset, or a certain belief that they should have, but since they also live in America, they also learned about all the Amendments and all the rules that we have including freedom of speech. But they should know that, to a certain extent, they should be able to say what they want, like Jack (Esformes) said, you can’t talk about Nazis because they were murderers, they were mass murderers, they killed like twelve million people, and like ISIS, they’re terrorists. You can’t support them because it’s not the right thing to do. And again, it goes back to common sense.”
The discussion then turned to freedom of speech.
“I see that there’s a difference between respectfully saying what you want to say and being hateful,” Yael Bister (10th) said. “There’s a difference between a peace march and marches carrying guns and shields, like the march in Charlottesville did.”
Senior Tehila Moore agreed that everyone has freedom of speech, but with some restrictions. “You can talk about anything you want, just because you’re part of a Nazi group doesn’t mean that you can’t have freedom of speech, you just can’t talk about Nazis and can’t have a Nazi flag.”
This argument evoked the question of what exactly the concept of freedom of speech includes. “Maybe it’s time that the government changes the meaning of freedom of speech instead of having it be such a broad statement,” said Jack Esformes (12th) “Expand on it for what you’re allowed and what you’re not allowed to do.”
The opposing perspective was expressed with equal fervor. “Freedom of speech one hundred percent includes hate speech,” said David Gilinski.
However unfortunate and unfair as it may seem to some, the point of view that both sides of rally-goers were equally protected by the first amendment was vocalized. Noah Dobin (11th) said, “The white groups did have freedom of speech, the government did not stop them from voicing their opinion, but the counter-protesters used their right of freedom of speech to counter-protest.”
Some students took an apathetic standpoint and remarked that we should let the “haters” hate and not be bothered by it. Raquel Zohar (11th) quickly stated her disapproval. “Bystanding will not get us anywhere, I think it’s a direct attack on us as Jews.”
After the Debate Midrash, people spoke in appreciation of this unique event. “I think every school should have them and if they don’t have them they’re missing out,” Assistant Principal Dr. Lieber said. “I think it’s really a safe place for kids to speak how they feel and be able to respectfully disagree with one another and it’s a great outlet.”
As controversial as the topic may seem, students came out with an appreciative attitude.
“What we’re really saying about America as a whole is there’s something beautiful about America,” said Noah Schiff (12th) at the end of the debate. “In a way, you have so much freedom here. You can say, really whatever you want, to an extent, and you guys should take out of this something else, that it’s so debatable, as we see, what we can and can’t say, but that’s what America is.”
By: Adira Kahn (11th Grade) with additional reporting from Ariella Wolfson (12th Grade), Maya Somek (12th Grade), Ava Horowitz (12th Grade), Yael Bramy (12th Grade), and Jack Benveniste-Plitt (11th Grade)