David Mandler

Thoughts, feelings, reactions on Hungarian, American, Israeli, Jewish issues

Month: September, 2012

The NAACP Goes After New York’s Specialized High Schools: In Danger of Elimination?

It seems that every few days, something new appears in the media about New York City’s Stuyvesant High School. And, without exception, the news has  been focusing on the negative, exposing not only the less savory side of this most coveted of specialized high schools, but also, in the process, revealing the many biases and ideological inconsistencies that the people who are quick to point fingers harbor. Following New York Magazine’s article, “Cheating Upward,” (http://nymag.com/news/features/cheating-2012-9/) itself bordering on the exploitative as Robert Kolker shamelessly makes use of a 16-year-old student’s first hand accounts of how he cheated and enabled others to cheat only to have the punchline at the end this student–not at Stuyvesant anymore–wishes to become an investment banker (no bank will hire him after it makes a google search and finds this article), and an article in the New York Times that, itself, contains factual errors (no directive to ban laptops or Ipads has been issued by the new principal), comes the news that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is pursuing a complaint against specialized high schools, alleging racial discrimination.

While sympathizing with the NAACP’s goal to increase diversity at specialized high schools, I find the logic of the complaint seriously flawed. According to the Daily News, ““Black and Latino students don’t see opportunity at places like Stuyvesant because of the admissions process,” said NAACP attorney Rachel Kleinman. “It’s not fair and it’s bad policy.”
(http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/naacp-claims-discriminatory-admission-practices-city-elite-high-schools-article-1.1169240#ixzz27jy0g38E). Yet, if the test itself were really designed to screen out black and Latino students, no black and Latino students should be able to score well enough to gain admission into the specialized high schools at all. Clearly, while too few in numbers, black and Latino students do get into specialized high schools. Surely, nobody would be prepared to argue that the black and Latino students who are offered seats at Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech or Bronx Science are not really Latino or black. That would be totally absurd. So, it is not the test itself, per se, that is racially discriminatory.

Is the test discriminatory? Naturally, it is. All tests are. More precisely, well-designed tests intend to separate ill-prepared students from well-prepared ones in specific subjects. A math test that New York specialized high schools used to determine admission, by its very nature, cannot be designed to discriminate racially. Every student who has had the necessary motivation (both family and self-motivation) coupled with rigorous preparation that often goes beyond a year or two has a good chance of scoring high on the test. The real question is not whether or not the specialized tests should be abolished as discriminatory but, rather, why it is that preparation for the test is not widely available in elementary and junior high schools.

The NAACP also claims that the test does not have a “demonstrative relationship to past academic achievements or future academic potential…” according to Damon Hewitt, the education director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/26/naacp-file-complaint-bias-new-york-high-schools_n_1918027.html). Yet, in my view, this statement is not entirely accurate. This test measures a student’s verbal and math skills (http://schools.nyc.gov/Accountability/resources/testing/SHSAT.htm). Rigorous preparation with a high level of self-discipline and countless hours of study are certainly necessary to do well on this test. And having students who excel at studying and develop a degree of self-discipline is essential to creating a student body that is focused on meeting the high demands and pressures specialized high schools by their very nature place on students. Of course, the competition only intensifies with admission to specialized high schools, and, yes, at times, it can turn into a meaningless chase after points on tests and GPAs as students believe their chances of getting into Ivy League schools depends on a point here and a point there. Lastly, it must be stated that the above-mentioned skills that the admission tests requires are necessary but not sufficient for predicting success. A whole range of other factors emerge as junior high school students transition into high schools. In fact, a small percentage of students who are admitted to specialized high schools do not continue to do well academically in that environment and either drop out or barely manage to pass classes.

The NAACP should be clear whether it is seeking to abolish the specialized test or the specialized high schools themselves. For, it seems to me, that the test that determines admission has been in place in order to attract the kind of student who is best prepared to take the pressures inherent in schools with high academic expectations. And the “kind” of student, in theory and in practice, can come from any racial or cultural background with any immigration status.

Were the New York State Legislature to change the law and allow admission to be based on other factors as well, I fear that it would alter the very nature of specialized high schools in rather unpredictable ways. For schools in New York, as in the country, are extremely diverse not only in population but also in academic standards, despite the many standardized tests (most of which are fearfully dumbed-down). A student with a 95 average in one school may only have attained an 85 average in another school as a result of differing expectations and standards. Teachers even within the same school grade differently with some grading higher while others lower for the same work. A student who is “stuck” with a strictly-grading teacher would, thus, be at a disadvantage. Conversely, students in a school that rewards a modicum of effort in an environment that is largely apathetic stick out to their teachers and, therefore, get high grades for work that would be deemed average at best.

The only way to eliminate these systematic discrepancies is to have a test that places the bar high. Eliminating a test of this sort in favor of admission based on school grades would flood specialized high schools with students who are ill-prepared to take the kind of pressures necessary for academic success in that environment. The next step, then, would be to eliminate the environment to accommodate an ever-increasing number of struggling students at specialized high schools.

And that would mean the end of the specialized high school as we know it.

Clearly, the NAACP cannot wish the death of specialized high schools only because black and Latino students have not been prepared sufficiently well in high enough numbers to do well on the test. Instead, it should focus on ensuring that intensive preparation is available in every neighborhood of New York City.

Lastly, I want to point out that specialized high schools are not the only good high schools in New York City. Opportunity to excel academically and gain admission to top universities exists in a wide range of schools in every neighborhood of the city. Naturally, academic culture differs from place to place, as it should. But the goal is the same: to have students who become life-long learners, who are critical thinkers, and who can acquire good study skills that will enable them to learn new things in life, and last, but certainly not least of all, to prepare students for college if that should be their choice.

By the well-intentioned goal of trying to increase diversity at specialized high schools using the ill-conceived method of compelling New York State to eliminate the admissions test, the NAACP would only succeed in removing from New York’s educational landscape the type of specialized high schools that have created so many wonderfully successful alumni in the last decades, thereby seriously diminishing diversity in the types of public schools from which students can choose to pursue their dreams.

(The above article solely reflects the author’s views as of the writing of the article. It does NOT represent the DOE or Stuyvesant High School).


On Yom Kippur: Forgive me! Forgive me!

Forgive me, forgive me! I hope I’m not too late
To ask for forgiveness. I never meant to hate
A single millisecond of life you gave to me.
I thank you profusely for all you’ve let me see.

My kids and my brother, my father, mother, wife
My nephews, aunts and nieces you put into my life;
The workplace with students, the trees, the dark gray skies
The train in the mornings, the drawn-out long goodbyes.

Forgive me, forgive me! I hope I’m not too late
To ask for forgiveness. I cannot really hate
A single millisecond of life you gave to me.
Forgive me my blindness. From now I’ll try to see.

My friends if I hurt you, I now apologize
My sins scream out louder than my little children’s cries.
Forgive me, forgive me! Let me wash the floor with tears
My sins be forgiven! May we see more blessed years.

Humanity Learning to Have Humanity: Reflections on the End of Year 5772

For Jews around the world, the year 5772 is about to end on Sunday, September 16. The final days of this year could not have been more turbulent. With news about various protests against the United States–following news of an anti-Mohammed film–, Syrian atrocities against its own people with Hezbollah in Lebanon getting ready for the next round of hostilities, the last thing one wished to see is the kind of serious tension that has been mounting between Israel and the United States in the past few days regarding the issue of Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In such a context, the issues regarding Hungarian internal and international politics are all but irrelevant to the world at large except for Armenia (see my previous article).

So, at the end of this particular Jewish year, the prospects for year 5773 fill me with great trepidation.

Humanity is yet to learn what it means to have humanity.

Making a movie that looks so ludicrously amateurish with its obviously fake scenery coupled with clothing and exaggerated plastic beards straight from the corner shop for theater props is already an insult to the sensibilities of all intelligent movie goers. Any intelligent human being gets the picture when we add to all this the deception perpetuated on the actors who claim to have been in the dark about the real subject of the movie as well as the criminal background of the movie’s financier who had initially put out the inflammatory information that he was an Israeli Jew when in fact he is a convicted felon of Coptic Egyptian descent with the ominous name Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. Clearly, “The Innocence of Islam,” based on the excerpts available to the public, is such a bad film that none of its intended messages should be taken seriously.

Yet, thousands of Muslims have been raging for days now against both the movie and the country in which it was produced, claiming that this attack on the dignity of the Prophet Muhammed should not go unanswered. The Libyan U.S. ambassador, Chris Stephens, lost his life because, allegedly, Al Qaida, successfully took advantage of the protest around the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last week, managing to trap the ambassador and three other Americans in the building they set ablaze.

Their deaths constitute a dreadful loss to humanity.

Nonetheless, the deaths of these four innocent Americans seems not to have appeased the offended Muslims. More demonstrations have followed in the subsequent days with more violence.

Ironically, the violent reaction against the movie has done more to damage the image of Islam than the shoddy and obviously ideologically-driven movie itself. After all, the dignity of the prophet, any prophet, cannot be insulted. A prophet’s followers believe that he is a man of God, and no outside agitators can ever shake that belief. When a prophet preaches peace and submission, it is especially counterproductive to defend his honor by displaying rage and anything but submissions in an attempt to defend his honor. Then again, using an a fortiori inference, one should not be surprised by this kind of violent outburst to “defend the honor of Mohammed” in societies where so-called honor killings to defend the honor of the family by killing an unmarried sister or daughter who has been seen with a man are still common.

Killing human beings for making a movie–especially human beings who have had absolutely nothing to do with the film–is so morally outrageous that, when done in the name of a religion, it greatly tarnishes the reputation of the religion. It is up to Muslims who have been offended by the movie’s message but condemn murdering innocent human beings as a result must stand up and shout to the world that they are absolutely opposed to such retributions. After all, if the Islamic prophet Mohammed were alive, would he, as a messenger of God, sanction such reactions from his followers?

Tensions in the Arab world are disturbing regarding the future peace between Israel and various Arab and Muslim countries. What is even more disquieting is the disharmony between the U.S. president, Barak Obama, and Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu when it comes to Iran. The news that president Obama has no time to meet the Israeli PM when the latter visits New York demonstrates how seriously misaligned these two men are on the issue of attacking Iran. If even the approaching elections do not make President Obama intent on showing that he respects the prime minister of Israel, traditionally the closest and most unwavering U.S. ally, no matter his views then the situation is especially grave for Israel. For this means that President Obama believes that he can be reelected without the active support of Jews and, therefore, in his second term, will have to pay even less attention to Jewish voices when it comes to his policies in the Middle East.

If Israel ultimately attacks Iran in the next couple of months (or anytime afterwards), the Iranian reaction–both direct and through its terrorist allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas–will most likely be fierce and deadly. Israel knows this. For this reason, Israel has done everything in its power to avoid attacking Iran. The Stuxnet virus, reportedly developed by the US and Israel, has only slowed down Iran but has failed to stop it from developing nuclear weapons. Israel has waited for both American leadership and permission to act on its own if need be. In the past ten years, neither strong leadership nor permission to attack single-handedly has been given. And now, President Obama has publicly distanced himself from Israel. Even as thousands of Muslims called out into the street by various political and religious parties, using “The Innocence of Islam” movie as a pretext for further demonstrations against America as such, the U.S. president has not yet come down on the side of Israel in a clear and unequivocal way.

No Israelis or Jews have called for demonstrations or perpetrated violence as a result of President Obama’s public snubbing of PM Netanyahu. Instead, they will most likely register their dissatisfaction with the current U.S. president in November at the voting booths.

This article could go on and on with other burning issues. The brutality of the Syrian regime, Egypt’s definite march toward Islamic extremism, Iran’s repeated threats against Israel, growing intolerance of Jews in some European countries are but a few issues that need our attention.

Yet, the most burning issue for all Jews today who believe that a higher power directs the world is to look inward, discover and correct any character flaws that have had an impact on interpersonal relationships and the relationship between the individual and God.

I believe that not only individual peace of mind depends on it but the peace of the entire world. I believe that the words of the ancient declaration Jews are about to repeat in synagogues around the world rings especially true today. Whatever evil decree is about to be made in Heaven, repentance, prayer and charity (teshuva, tefila, tzedaka) are the only antidotes to the evil decree.

May the world have a peaceful and prosperous year in 5773 in which humanity finally learns what it means to have humanity.

Releasing an Axe Murderer: Hungary Enters World Stage in Disgrace

While Hungary has been in the news lately with the prosecution of Laszlo Csatary (see my earlier postings), yesterday, 8/31, a new scandal has erupted that may finally put Hungary on the map–although not the way Hungarians would wish. As the BBC has reported, Hungary has extradited to Azerbaijan an Azeri convicted axe murderer of an Armenian solider (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19440661). The murderer, a former soldier, despite promises to the contrary, was immediately released and was reportedly even promoted. In response, Armenia has cut all diplomatic ties with Hungary. With 30,000 Armenians living in Hungary–and about 1.5 million Americans of Armenian descent populating the United States–this move may cost Hungary much more than the alleged back-room deal of 3 billion euros in Hungarian bonds the Azeri president promised Orban Azerbaijan would purchase in exchange.

Any way one examines this case, the first and most prominent impression one gets of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s decision to release the convicted axe murderer is that it could only have come from a man whose moral compass has seriously malfunctioned. A convicted murderer’s place is in jail–especially when the murderer confesses to hacking another human being with an axe simply because that other human being belonged to another ethnic group he hated. The excuse that the Azerbaijani president had assured that the man, Ramil Safarov who killed Gurgen Markarian in 2004, would serve his life sentence rings hollow. A quick glance at the celebratory reception of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi in Libya in 2009  (when Scotland released the Lockerbie Bomber on compassionate grounds) could have given an idea about what would happen to Safarov back in Azerbaijan to the moral and political geniuses in Budapest advising Mr. Orban or Mr. Orban himself. (Megrahi went on to live another three years in luxury instead of the prognosticated three months).

That Mr. Orban and his ruling FIDESZ party have increasingly been disregarding international norms when it comes to civil political discourse should not come as a surprise to those who have been paying any attention to Hungary in the past few years. Orban’s complicity in employing terms that would find sympathy in the ranks of the wildly nationalistic and xenophobic JOBBIK Party and the undecided voters who leaned towards JOBBIK is clear. Today, anti-Jewish (and even more so, anti-Gypsy) sentiments are commonplace in Hungarian public discourse–not to mention on public transportation. The most outrageous incident to date did not even involve a Jew. It occurred just this past Wednesday (8/29) when the leader of the The Hungarian Resistance Fighters and Anti-Fascists Alliance, Vilmos Hanti, was beaten up by a gang of 10-15 people dressed in black after a demonstration against Hungarian fascism in front of the Uj Szinhaz (see my previous post on that story).

So far, the Hungarian government has not condemned the attack. The silence of elected officials (and even Jewish organizations!!!) in this case is deafening. The lack of vigorous protests (online, in print and in the streets) may be indicative of the depths to which general Hungarian sensitivities about outrages against human dignity have fallen.

Besides highlighting a serious moral lapse, Mr. Orban may have committed an equally fatal political misstep as well. While Azerbaijan celebrates the return of its “national hero,” Armenians are fuming. The Armenian president has made the following (rather stunning) declaration: “By their actions Hungarian and Azerbaijani authorities opened the door for the repetition of such crimes. By this decision they send a message to the murderers: from now on they know that the murder on the ethnic or religious ground can remain unpunished,” said President Sargsyan. “I cannot tolerate that. The Republic of Armenia cannot tolerate that. Armenian nation will never forgive that. I officially declare that we cease all diplomatic relations with Hungary and break all official connections.” (http://www.armenianlife.com/2012/08/31/armenian-nation-will-never-forgive-yerevan-breaks-diplomatic-relations-with-hungary/)

How fierce of a reaction in Armenia did Mr. Orban think his move would inspire? Did he not calculate the costs (both financial and political) Hungary would incur as a result of such an incredibly unjust extradition?

Armenia will never forgive Hungary? What will the 30,000 Armenians do in Hungary now as Armenians have reportedly protested the extradition by massing in front of Hungarian embassies and burning Hungarian flags? Will the Armenian minority now become a target of the far right in Hungary? Will Armenians living in the United States pressure President Obama, running for reelection, to act against Hungary in some meaningful way? Will the fury against Mr. Orban’s economically-inspired peacock dance (that has failed to deceive the Armenians) inspire physical violence? Will the Azeri president laugh all the way to the bank, telling his bankers to keep the three billion euros now that Hungary’s bargaining chip is back in his country?

Only time will tell.

The extradition, clearly, flies in the face of justice. No states should be allowed to extradite convicted criminals in exchange for money when the criminal is not only sure to be released but also celebrated as a national hero.

And that is precisely what happened last Friday.

Let the Armenians know: Mr. Orban is not Hungary despite his unsightly posturing to the contrary. This extradition fills everyone, not just Armenians, with a sense of decency with outrage. It certainly should inspire a huge backlash against Mr. Viktor Orban in Hungary. On Facebook, a picture with words in English expressing Hungarian dissatisfaction and condemnation of this move is already gaining some popularity. Yet, the FIDESZ (or more precisely, Mr. Orban) still does not get it with Gabriella Selmeczi, the FIDESZ spokesperson, indicating that “the FIDESZ Party identifies one hundred per cent with the government’s position [that] in this case everything took place according to the rules of international justice”  and considers the case closed (http://www.origo.hu/itthon/20120901-lezartnak-tekinti-a-fidesz-az-azeri-gyilkos-ugyet.html).

The Hungarian government may think the case is closed.  The Armenians and those they will inform about this case, on the other hand, will never again look at Hungary the same way.

Armenians are shocked and hurt by the extradition of Ramil Safarov.

Echoing some newspapers the day after 9/11, I want to say with a clear voice: We are all Armenians today!