So much for the ‘People of Einstein’ myth

Emma Teitel on how a York University student makes Jews look bad—and why that’s a good thing



There’s an inside Yiddish expression used by Jews to describe other Jews behaving badly in the public sphere: “shanda for the goyim” — shanda meaning “shame” and goyim denoting “gentiles” (non-Jews). The phrase is most commonly employed by Semitic seniors, when the modern media informs them that Jews can in fact be lechers (Dominique Strauss-Kahn), alcoholics (Amy Winehouse); unsuspecting nudes (Scarlett Johansson); and now, thanks to one 22-year-old Toronto Jewish girl, dangerously obtuse.

The woman in question—with whom I share at least one mutual Facebook friend (I am also a 22-year-old Jewish girl and it’s very possible we crossed paths, maybe at B’nai Brith summer camp, or perhaps in the annual United Synagogue Youth Limousine Sukka Hop)—is a York University senior named Sarah Grunfeld, who last week made shanda-esque headlines when she put her social science professor’s career in jeopardy over an anti-Semitic remark that turned out to be—well—not. The statement “All Jews should be sterilized,” Professor Cameron Johnston explained in the introductory lecture to his class, was an example of an invalid and dangerous opinion; his point was that in academia especially, opinions must be reasonably qualified. Grunfeld failed to catch that qualifier, though, perhaps because before the prof had a chance to offer it, she had stormed out of class and enlisted the on-campus Israel-advocacy group, Hasbara (Hebrew for “Explanation”), to call for his immediate resignation.

Word of Johnston’s so-called racism exploded virally online by way of what National Post columnist Jonathan Kay has dubbed the “Bubbie-net” (Jewish grandparents frantically emailing their kin with fresh findings of alleged anti-Semitism); at the same time widely-respected Canadian Jewish civil rights association, B’nai Brith (Children of the Covenant), leaped in with equal gusto to champion Grunfeld’s claim. Then came the big reveal: Ms. Grunfeld had made a mistake. Not only was professor Johnston not an anti-Semite, he was a Jew. To borrow a more accessible Yiddish phrase, political correctness at York University had effectively schtupped itself. Not to mention Sarah Grunfeld.

The maligned university student has since “qualified” her accusations against Johnston with claims twice as ludicrous as the original. “The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’,” she told the Toronto Star recently, “still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious.”

A lot of Canadian Jews are embarrassed and ashamed by this kind of doublespeak, and so was I, until I re-examined the root of my disquiet. There’s a reason why this particular shanda—and not, let’s say, Woody Allen’s marriage to his adopted daughter, or Garth Drabinsky’s defrauding of his shareholders, or The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart’s changing his name from John Stewart Liebowitz—ignites such fierce indignation in the Jewish community: Because Grunfeld doesn’t simply make us look bad (like the guys above); she makes us look stupid, and in doing so debunks the cultural stereotypes of intellectual superiority that we sometimes not-so-secretly enjoy.

Jewish American author Michael Chabon explored the seductiveness of this stereotype to Jews themselves in the New York Times last year in considering the calibre of the discussion following Israel’s botched raid of the Gaza bound Turkish flotilla, Mavi Marmara, in which nine activists died at the hands of Jewish soldiers (a debacle Diaspora Jews had trouble reconciling with our supposed “cultural” cleverness):

“I would look around the Passover table, say, at the members of my family, and remark on the presence of a number of highly intelligent, quick-witted, shrewd, well-educated people filled to bursting with information, explanations and opinions on a diverse range of topics. In my tractable and vainglorious eagerness to confirm the People of Einstein theory, my gaze would skip right over—God love them—any counterexamples present at that year’s Seder.”

Sarah Grunfeld—God love her—is one such counterexample. But we’d be wrong to let our gaze skip right over her, because there’s another, more disturbing lesson to be drawn from the Grunfeld affair and it’s this: as Jews, we hold the moral high ground to call out anti-Semitism. That’s why, in part, Grunfeld’s accusation had the legs it did, and why, perhaps, it got the backing from the Jewish infrastructure organizations such as B’nai Brith, which still hasn’t distanced itself from Grunfeld or denounced her fallacious claim, but has instead published her unapologetic letter blasting Professor Johnston for a sin he didn’t commit, with a logic even more addled than before. And there lies the biggest shanda of all: Grunfeld’s false allegations and the group’s uninformed decision to support her are bad mistakes, but both parties’ inability to own up to those mistakes renders them inexcusable. Because when we cry wolf —especially on one of our own—serious apologies are in order.

But it’s doubtful that apologies of any kind will be made, and B’nai Brith will continue sniffing out anti-Semitism where there may not be any, all the while undermining cases where there is. If anything good does come from this debacle, however, it’s that our enemies and unsolicited friends (Glenn Beck comes to mind) may think twice before attributing all things grave and glorious to the “People of Einstein.” Because if public representatives of the Jewish faith continue to make exceedingly stupid mistakes, then the various calumnies the conspiracy theorists like to heap on all of us—the blood libel, the plague, AIDS, the Iraq War, and our obvious plans to take over everything from Saturday night TV to the World Bank—start to ring kind of hollow. After all, with Sarah Grunfeld leading the way, for what exactly can they blame us?


So much for the ‘People of Einstein’ myth

  1. Whose permission will women need to vote?  Father? Brother? Uncle?

  2. Well, you’ve certainly put that shared facebook friend in an awkward situation.

  3. Emma Teitel has no frickin’ idea what she is talking about.  The entire ‘Sarah Grunfeld’ story was a cleverly manipulated smear campaign orchestrated by York University, the Professor, and the Toronto Star. If you want information on what really happened, contact Shmutz Exposer at shmutzexposer@hotmail.ca.

    • Why bother with the email? How about you fill in the details right here…

      • There are many details. Not sure if they will all fit here.  Maybe I’ll give it a try anyways.

      • To make an extremely long story short that is filled with
        lies, here goes: 

        The University and the Professor embarked on a smear campaign
        to make Sarah look like a dimwit student who did not comprehend what she heard.   

        Sarah sat in the front row.  She knows what she heard,
        and she is an intelligent girl.  The professor who used the abhorrent
        comment never clarified the context in which he claimed he was using it.
         Three other girls in the glass have corroborated with Sarah (to a Rabbi
        in Hillel at York), that they were equally disturbed by what he said, spoke
        about it with their friends all the way home, and reported it to their parents.
         However, they are afraid to come forward publicly – can you blame them;
        look at what the press has done to Sarah? 
        Apparently one of the girls even has precise notes of his wording, which
        she is afraid to hand over. 

        The University (Dean of lib arts and Vice Provost, even met
        with Sarah and admitted the professor’s mistake. They said the professor was
        extremely regretful and apologetic and that he will rethink how he frames his
        comments in the future. They told Sarah a public apology would likely be
        forthcoming to the class within 24 hours.

         However, CIJA (formerly the CJC) rushed ahead with a
        statement entirely absolving the professor and blaming it on a
        ‘misunderstanding’ on the part of the student; they did this before Sarah had
        met with the university and without even speaking to Sarah (and now are lying
        about these facts). 

        The professor’s accomplice, the Toronto Star, came out with a
        story full of fabrications (the professor’s missing qualifiers suddenly
        appeared as part of his comment) and Sarah words were misquoted and taken out
        of context.  In fact, the Star reporter used dubious means to contact her
        and to get her to say something over the phone; and he used her name against
        her wishes.  Every subsequent article and internet blog based their story
        on the contorted version of the Toronto Star, and added their own two twisted
        cents, creating a spun-out-of-control viral nightmare.

         There’s more, but that’s the gist of it.  For further information, please feel free to
        contact Shmutzexposer@hotmail.ca.


        • Complete bullcrap!

          Your saying the professor, who is Jewish himself, wanted to exterminate the whole Jewish race, literally, and only three anonymous Jewish girls, who may not even exist, had an epiphany while nearly 500 students that attended that class cheered the professor on??

          What fantasy do you live in?

          • Ummm….look who’s the stupid one.  Perhaps you should re-read what is written above.  Clearly you haven’t comprehended a single thing.

  4. After this shamelessly self-aggrandizing and factually incorrect article, its no wonder people hate Jews. Thanks for giving another theoretical limb to anti-Semites, but I’m sure you considered this when you submitted your piece-God love you- regular Einstein that you are!
    On a different tack, its good to see people are finding employment on the hater-bandwagon! 

  5. As a friend of Sarah’s I know that other students heard the same thing, WITHOUT the qualifier- and immediately posted the professor’s ORIGINAL statement as their Facebook status. Articles like these would explain why they are afraid to come forward- just type “Sarah Grunfeld” into Google. Perhaps a lawsuit is in order…

    Emma, Im glad you took the time to qualify your “Jewishness”at the
    beginning of the article. Perhaps you should go back to your Bubbie who,
    I’m sure, would like to practice her yiddish with a 22-year old yenta.
    But please,leave the gossip out of Macleans’.

  6. Thoughtful article, Emma, and I really hope Sarah Grunfeld issues a public apology.

    As for the trolls commenting on this article, they are literally too stupid. Michael & Adam, your profiles on yahoo were created as recently as today, lets be honest you two are the same troll as Shmutzexposer. Stop the propaganda boys and take your meds.

  7. Thanks. You make me feel less guilty about being stupid!!

  8. So… a jewish professor who supposedly suggests someone kill him and his, upsetting some jewish students who go to jewish organizations to complain about a jewish anti-semite yada yada yada.

    Wait, why are we supposed to care about this again?

    Honestly, when does the whole thing just become silly as hell?

  9. This is Michael,
    Amy. Im glad you took the time to do your research. Maybe the same effort could be expended investigating this story.
    I created the profile so my name wouldn’t be smeared across the internet the same way as Sarah’s has.
    As for your  “meds”, statement, very mature. Maybe I’ll use that one next time I appear in front of a judge. As for the “too stupid, I dont need you pointing that out. This article already answered the papradox of how I could be both Jewish and stupid!
     I dont know who the 2 other profiles are, but I understand their desire for anonymity, wouldn’t you?

    my statement still stands, leave the gossip for bubbie, not Macleans.

    Here’s something MY bubbie taught me, if you dont have something nice to say, dont say anything at all. The world has enough wrong with it already.

    As the Day of Atonement is coming up, maybe you (Emma) should consider the
    hurtful and damaging effects your article may have had, and think about
    that when writing your next piece. Take this criticism to heart and use your words to help
    make the world a better place.

    • Agreed!  Atone motherfucka!!!!!!

      Hahahahahhahahahahahahahah…….this entire thread is indeed a true “shunda”.

      • “if you dont have something nice to say, dont say anything at all”
        Your Bubbie didn’t say that, Thumper did.  From Bambi.

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