February 2, 2006
Marlborough Defuses Anti-Israel Claim
A private girls' school in Hancock Park has defused accusations of anti-Israel bias in the wake of an English teacher's speech on the Mideast at an all-school assembly.
The controversy arose at Marlborough School after Laura Rochette, who teaches English and Arabic literature at the 117-year-old academy, presented "Postcards from Abroad" at a monthly all-school assembly, offering snippets of impressions she gleaned from conversations with people in Egypt, Israel and Jordan, while on a Fulbright Scholarship last summer in Egypt. The talk was meant to be poetic and experiential, not a political manifesto from the teacher or from the school, administrators said.
But some students came away feeling that her talk skewed toward those who believe Israel is an oppressive and racist state and had crossed the line from personal observations to political propaganda. One parent complained as did two students separately. And a pro-Zionist organization, StandWithUs, briefly considered holding a demonstration at the school. At the same time, some Jewish students said they found nothing objectionable in her remarks.
After an e-mail exchange and a meeting with a parent, the administration decided to meet with concerned students, the possible results of which could include a teach-in, a guest speaker or a panel presentation that would allow the 530 girls in seventh through 12th grade to glimpse a more positive view of Israel. The school hopes the students will take a leadership role in crafting the response.
"Teachers and students are meeting together to address and give expression to any and all concerns that have been voiced," said Barbara Wagner, Marlborough head of school. "As an educational institution, we embrace every opportunity for dialogue among our students and teachers, especially on topics as sensitive as this."
"My faith in the school is renewed," said Steve Goldberg, a parent who is active in right-wing Zionist organizations such as American Friends of Likud and the Zionist Organization of America. Goldberg, an attorney, had gone to the administration after his daughter Joanna, an 11th-grader, told him about the Jan. 10 presentation.
Rochette, who was not available for an interview, spent about a month in Egypt and took short side trips to Jordan and Israel, where she spent a week on kibbutz and in Jerusalem. Her presentation quoted different people she met and painted pictures of moments that stayed with her. One of those moments included seeing a mother and two children sneak under the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel. She said the family looked like rats scurrying through the small opening, and she marveled at the young age of the soldiers who forced the family back.
She also quoted a Palestinian who said the wall was racist, and another who said the violence would stop when the occupation stopped.
Her Israeli vignettes included her moving experience at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, and watching the teen life bubble in Zion Square.
"The assembly was supposed to be her account of her trip the Middle East, but it ended up that she gave her political opinion by only interviewing Arabs about issues like defense," said Joanna Goldberg. "She made it seem like Israel was a bad, racist place."
But other Jewish students said her talk was moving and did not stray from personal impressions.
"I think of myself as someone who has a radar for these sort of things. I'm not oblivious to this. But I was not offended by it at all," said senior Elizabeth Green, who said she came home with renewed conviction to visit Israel. "It was very much [Rochette's] cultural experience, her personal interaction with people. I did not get a sense of a political agenda at all."