Illustration by The Free Press (classroom photo by Lambert/Getty Images)

The Unconscientious Objectors

How progressive education made my peers morally confused.

In my eleventh grade American Literature class at a private school in the Philadelphia suburbs, our first assignment was to bring an object to class that represented America. Setting aside the inanity of having 16-year-olds perform show-and-tell—and presenting it as “education”—that day stuck with me for another reason.

One of my classmates, a fellow member of the student orchestra, held up a baseball card, explaining, “This is the first African American player to play professional baseball: Doug Glanville.” Glanville is indeed black and was an excellent center fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1990s. But he was, as anyone who is familiar with the history of baseball can tell you, not the first African American to play baseball professionally.

I raised my hand. The teacher called on me. “That’s not right,” I started to say. My teacher stopped me. “Let him finish,” she said, gesturing toward the student. When he was done, the teacher nodded and said: “Thank you for that illuminating presentation. Who’s next?”

At this progressive school, we were taught that everyone had an equal voice and worthwhile perspective. There were no advanced classes. All were considered equal, and everyone was entitled to their own opinion. All cultures, religions, and worldviews deserved respect, including, apparently, objective falsehoods. Abject right-versus-wrong only applied in geometry class or when discussing violence (always wrong) versus nonviolence (always right).

Over the past several decades, a distinct and real set of politics has infected elite institutions—rooted in a moral relativism that is not just unrealistic, it’s dangerous.

“War is never justified,” proclaimed my middle school Spanish teacher, after America invaded Afghanistan. “Responding to the violence of 9/11 with more violence is not the answer. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind!”

I raised my hand: “But if America hadn’t fought against the Nazis, my grandfather would have died in a concentration camp, just as his parents and four brothers and sisters did. And I wouldn’t be here today. Was that war not justified?”

“No, Jaime,” she said, using the Spanish name she’d assigned me. “Violence is never justified. Callate.”

Fast-forward two decades and the effects of this John Lennon “imagine there are no countries” (a song we sang frequently in lower school assemblies) style of education has come to maddening fruition: support for the terrorist group Hamas. I tried last week to confront a former classmate—and fellow Jew—who has been using her Instagram to call for an immediate cease-fire. Since she works in tech and likes to meditate, I figured I’d send her Sam Harris’s recent podcast titled “The Bright Line Between Good and Evil.” In it, Harris highlights the distinction between innocent, peace-loving Israelis and violent jihadist terrorists: “There is a bright line between good and a very specific form of evil that we must keep in view. It is the evil of bad ideas—ideas so bad that they can make even ordinary human beings impossible to live with.” (Somewhere my Spanish teacher is gasping.)

This was my classmate’s response: “Although, as both a Jew and compassionate human, I mourn the loss of Jewish life and uptick in antisemitism, I won’t stand behind the destruction of any life. In any form, by anyone. Whether it’s Israel, the U.S., Italy, or an organization like Hamas, I will never support violence or war in the name of self-defense, because if your existence comes at the cost of someone else’s life, then who are you? What kind of self is that?’”

A self that is. . . alive? A self that is not raped or tortured, whose loved ones aren’t kidnapped and beaten?

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world without violence or without death. I wish my former classmate was, in fact, asking herself—now—who she is and what kind of self she inhabits. If she did, she’d be forced to admit that her existence already came at the cost of other lives. The only reason she’s able to posit these questions is because of previous wars fought on her behalf. Had America laid down its arms, Hitler would have sailed across the Atlantic in pursuit of global domination and the eradication of all Jews, which doesn’t sound that different from the explicit goals of Hamas. Had we not stopped bin Laden in his goal to subject all of America to Sharia under a global caliphate, it would also have eventually meant the slaughter of Jews—not to mention the oppression and possible enslavement of millions of others.

My fellow millennials and subsequent generations have become conscientious objectors on steroids, proselytizing pacifists—no one should fight!—who type “taking life is never justified” on Instagram from gentrified neighborhoods separated from war zones by large oceans. This stance, that no one should fight to defend themselves and protect a democratic way of life, turns a blind eye to all of human history.

Freedom always comes at a cost. It just hasn’t been our cost, not even intellectually—as is clear from all those recent Instagram videos, in which current college students can’t even answer who attacked us on 9/11. We are not required to serve. We are not even required to volunteer and clean up some national park. Only 40 percent of Democrats said that they would stay and fight a Ukraine-style Russian invasion on American soil.

Why did our parents pay enormous sums of money for us to learn that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”? For the type of childhood education that leads directly to my former classmate’s philosophy of “I will never support violence in the name of self-defense”?

I was sent to this school because of its reputation in the arts. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to learn and write music at a young age, which laid the foundation for my career now as a composer for film and television. But even back then, my parents and I had the sense that something was going sideways educationally in these spaces. “Acceptance” began to apply to antisemitic opinions. Schools invited speakers who supported BDS, claiming they were just trying to “present both sides.” (No boycotts of any other countries were ever discussed.) We now have a direct line drawn from our educators remaining silent while students demanded the removal of hummus from the campus store to the cries of “globalize the intifada” at our university’s gates.

On my school’s website, they write: “Our vision: To awaken courage and intellect and peacefully transform the world.” Awaken courage and intellect? How about teaching right from wrong? “Imagine there are no countries”? I will not. I will not imagine, or hope for, a world with less meaning, less purpose, less morality, less humanity.

Instead, I’d like for all of us—especially parents with school-age children—to imagine, and demand, a world where teachers are not afraid to correct misinformation. A world where we acknowledge that the freedoms we enjoy have come from the great sacrifices of others. A world where the brandishing of slogans like “community of belonging” and “we go further” do not cover up for the absence of clearly stated ethics. Where we do not let so-called educators justify rape, murder, and kidnapping babies. Where we allow the entirely sensible argument to be made that calling for a cease-fire may very well not lead to peace, but rather—as in the case of jihadi terrorists—even more violence and bloodshed. A world where these lessons need not be discovered from podcasts, but where the unspoken morals that frame our daily lives are taught, protected, and celebrated openly.

To my pacifist former classmates, to the 48 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds who don’t condemn Hamas, and to everyone else: we Jews are not asking you to fight. We’re just asking you to stop trying to inhibit those who are. Those who are trying, bravely, to protect your right to dance at Coachella without having to worry about paragliders with machine guns. Those trying to protect the right of women to dance at all. Those protecting Jews’ right to exist.

We’re not asking you to teach English on Zoom to Israeli children whose teachers have been killed or called into reserve duty. Or to send money to the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center or to the Nova Musical Festival Survivors’ Fund. We’re just asking you to simply acknowledge that in some moments, like this one, there is a clear right (free democracies) and a clear wrong (jihadi terrorists), and sometimes the path to defending what is right is difficult. And if your modern show-and-tell education won’t allow you to publicly acknowledge this simple truth, at the very least stop reposting Jewish Voice for Peace (not really Jewish, definitely not peaceful).

Because Hamas, like the Nazis and bin Laden, must be defeated. Oh, and also? Doug Glanville was not the first African American to play Major League Baseball. That was Jackie Robinson, a man who continued to fight for what he believed was just, all while serving in our country’s military.

This article was first published in Tablet. Jackson Greenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer and composer. 

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