Civic engagement and the necessary ingredients for a healthy democracy were the themes of the day at the most recent Politicon, the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy’s quadrennial conference on politics.
Political operatives, elected officials and subject matter experts came to the Bryn Mawr campus to spend the morning of Feb. 13 addressing everything from anti-Semitism to firearms policy to campaign communications.
The walls of the school were practically obscured by homemade posters for the Democratic presidential candidates; as part of their election-year education, students participate in mock debates and mock elections. Pete Buttigieg took the Barrack primary, with Bernie Sanders coming in second.
Politicon, organized in election years by the Political Action Club, first started in the 1980s; the organizer of the first event, attorney David Senoff, was on hand to introduce the keynote speaker. His remarks were preceded by those of Minna Ziskind, a history teacher and the adviser to PAC; Head of School Sharon Levin; and the co-presidents of the club, Sophia Shapiro and Sarah Bartos.
After their introductions and a rendition of the national anthem, Senoff traced his interest in politics back to his time at what was then the Akiba Hebrew Academy, all the way to the present. After exhorting the students to remain proud and committed Jews, lest anti-Semitism fester in the vacuum, Senoff introduced his friend, the keynote speaker: Justice David Wecht, of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Wecht implored students to confront anti-Semitism wherever they encountered its manifestations.
“It can be met and defeated through your vigorous action,” he said. They would encounter vicious anti-Semitism masquerading as criticism of Israel when they reached college campuses, he told them; those “among our own people,” he cautioned, were “some of our worst adversaries.” Jews who were against Israel, he said, were akin to those who encouraged Hellenization, or had collaborated with the Nazis, with the Judenrat; they would not, he guaranteed, have Jewish grandchildren.
“It’s a psychopathology of the Jewish people,” he said.
After a short Q&A, the students were treated to a video greeting from rapper Meek Mill and Philadelphia 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, thanking them for staying civically engaged. Following that, the students left the dining commons for the first of two breakout sessions.
Shira Goodman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia, told a group of about 20 students that “hate speech is best combated by more speech.” “We believe that hate is learned,” she said, “and can therefore be unlearned.” Students shared their experiences of anti-Semitism.
On the floor below, Robin Schatz, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s director of government affairs, spoke to students about how best to advocate for the things that they wanted from different levels of government. Students discussed why it was important for elected officials to hear from constituents, and not just lobbyists.
Meantime, Marcel Groen, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, told war stories about how he helped to flip traditionally red counties to blue ones. His discussion, titled “2020 Ground Zero: The Philly Suburbs,” also touched on topics like anti-Semitism from Democratic politicians.
The only room boasting two presenters of opposing viewpoints was, not coincidentally, the site of lively discussion.
Max Milkman, of CeaseFire Pennsylvania, and Jonathan Goldstein, of the National Rifle Association, took rapid-fire questions from students in the Beit Midrash, giving their answers with the precision of seasoned debaters. Students asked each presenter about how they wanted to improve background checks, and what they made of the right to bear arms; the energy of the two presenters occasionally led to some more challenging language. See: “the countervailing tensions of the law,” and “indicia,” in place of “indicators.”
At the beginning of the second session, former intelligence officer Ed Turzanski, wearing a patch-covered leather jacket and a wide-brimmed hat, described his career in the American intelligence community during the Cold War. After the Cold War, he said, many started to believe that liberal-democratic hegemony had ended the era of Hegelian struggle.
“A bunch of guys in a cave in Afghanistan going, ‘durka, durka, durka,’” he said, had other plans.
And Samantha Harris, an attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, posed scenarios to the students, wherein they would have to determine whether or not someone’s right to free speech had been infringed upon. You’ve brought an Israeli MK to campus, and Palestinian activists have non-violently shouted your speaker down. You spoke out publicly about a school dress code, and you are suspended. One student impressed Harris with a question about protections for pro-Israel speech being regarded as an issue of freedom of speech or freedom of religion.
Other speakers at Politicon included: Ron Eisenberg, Denise Wolf, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Rena Shapiro, Todd Eisenberg, Maria Pulzetti, Brad Bridge, Dveera Segal, state Sen. Katie Muth, Dana Fritz and Gary Kaplan.