US: Jewish teacher fired for ‘anti-Zionist’ views sues employer

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Hundreds of Ultra-Orthodox Jews as known also anti-Zionists marched on the Brooklyn Bridge to protest Israel over aggression against Palestinians and chanted as “Judaism is not Zionism” in New York City, United States on May 27, 2021 [Tayfun Coşkun – Anadolu Agency]

A Jewish teacher who claims to have been fired from her job for expressing “anti-Zionist” views in a blogpost during Israel’s onslaught on Gaza last May has sued her employer, Westchester Reform Temple in New York.

According to the lawsuit filed last week, Jessie Sander was employed as a teacher on 10 May last year, the same day that Israel launched a military offensive on Gaza, which killed almost 200 Palestinians, including 65 children, and injured hundreds more.

Ten days into the offensive, Sander wrote a blog condemning the Israeli offensive. “As co-founders of an American Jewish organisation seeking to confront the Jewish community’s racist practices and beliefs, we must speak out against Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza,” said the 26-year-old teacher.

In the article, Sander and her co-author condemned Israel’s “settler-colonial violence” and referred to themselves as anti-Zionists. “Being anti-Zionist has made us even more invested in building Jewish community and fighting for justice for all Jews,” they wrote. “Jews in the United States must speak out against genocide in our name and state-sponsored murder disguised as support for Jewish people.”

Sander argued that her anti-Zionist journeys, “while difficult, have been nothing short of essential to strengthening our passion for Judaism.” When her employers got wind of her article, the temple management probed her about her views and urged her to find an alternative to calling herself an “anti-Zionist”.

READ: Palestinian academic suspended by UK university using controversial definition of anti-Semitism

The temple claims that its school community had room for members who were “wrestling with Israel”. During a meeting, Rabbi David Levy told Sander that he agreed with “90 per cent of what [you’re] saying,” but he urged her to consider describing herself with terms like “non-Zionist” or “post-Zionist” rather than “anti-Zionist”.

According to the lawsuit, Sander was asked to clarify that she was “not calling for a second Holocaust” because some people may read “anti-Zionist” and think that’s what was meant by it. She responded that she was not calling for a second Holocaust and was horrified that anyone might think so. Details of the exchange between Westchester Reform Temple and Sander did not show signs of deep disagreements. In one email, Levy expressed “complete confidence” in Sander as an educator.

Nevertheless, she was sacked from her job and was told that she was not a “good fit” for it. The lawsuit questions the temple’s claim that it encourages a “wrestling with Israel” position and was open to all views. The complaint says that, by firing Sander for expressing her anti-Zionist beliefs held from before she was hired, the synagogue violated a state labour statute that bars an employer from firing a worker for “recreational activities” such as “sports, games, hobbies, exercise, reading and the viewing of television, movies and similar material.” It is claimed that If Sander prevails, the legal argument could provide a model for other plaintiffs who face retaliation in the workplace for their views on Israel.

In an open letter to Westchester Reform Temple, 43 prominent Jewish scholars, rabbis and public figures have protested against Sander being fired. “We are Jews in the US with a range of experiences and perspectives on Israel and Palestine who are writing now with great concern about the firing of Jessie Sander solely because of the critical views about Israel,” said the signatories. “We urge you to reinstate her.”

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