Archive for August, 2011

Reported and written in May 2011.  The full article is also available at Thanassis Cambanis’ website.

Aron Wieder, Vice President of East Ramapo's public school board, keeps a Twitter account. His tweets vary from the cultural (“This purim—a springtime Jewish festival—it was unusually quiet on the streets of Monsey”) to the secular (“I read to the kids a Curious George book”). Photo: Aron Wieder.

Steve Forman, one of Ramapo High School’s assistant principals, was stunned to find on a recent morning that his town’s sectarian feud had spilled into his school. On the blackboard in an empty classroom, someone had scribbled: “IT’S THE JEWS’ FAULT.”

Forman immediately knew the anonymous student was not referring to the latest conflict in the Middle East.  The anti-Semitic jab was much less global.  In all likelihood, the student was referring to the Jewish members of the local public school board, who have drawn fire over the dilapidated state of the school district.

The East Ramapo school district is deeply divided.  Located twenty-five miles northwest of Manhattan, the suburb consists of a sizable ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, now the single largest ethnic group in town, and a mix of immigrant groups, including communities from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Though Ramapo High School boasts a colorful mural with the phrase, “Unity in diversity,” the community has largely ignored this mantra.  Over the years, festering tensions between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox populations have led to disputes over real estate, traffic safety, and most contentiously, education.  Non-Orthodox residents complain that the Orthodox community has used its political muscle to lower taxes and gut the public education system, while Orthodox residents contend that the district must be more responsive to the needs of the changing population.

These disputes mirror those in many other towns with bourgeoning Orthodox populations, such as in Long Island and in Brooklyn.  East Ramapo’s tensions may be mounting to unprecedented levels, though, with the US Department of Education recently having begun an investigation to see whether the school board has engaged in discriminatory practices against public school students.

Ultimately, the community-wide dispute has the largest impact on the 8,200 students who attend the public schools, over half of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch (a proxy for low-income status).  The dispute also directly impacts the 17,000 children in East Ramapo who attend private schools, the vast majority of which are yeshivas, or traditional Jewish schools.


Long-time East Ramapo residents often talk about the “golden age” of the school district.  “When I attended Ramapo [High School], it was a totally different place,” a middle-aged woman whispered to me during a school board meeting.  “Things have really gone downhill.”

In the context of East Ramapo, the phrase “gone downhill” has several specific connotations. I grew up in the area and attended East Ramapo’s public schools, so I am familiar with several of them.

Among residents of Rockland County, which embraces East Ramapo, “gone downhill” most often implies the changing ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the district.  In 1989, 38 percent of Ramapo High School’s students were non-white; by 2009, this figure had jumped to 93 percent, due both to the influx of sizable immigrant populations and to “white flight,” defined in this case as hundreds of East Ramapo’s white families either moving or sending their children to other schools.  “After white flight we began seeing black flight,” said Forman, an assistant principal at Ramapo High School.  “Middle-class black families started to leave our district too.  Who are we left with?”

“Gone downhill” also often refers to the perceived quality of education in East Ramapo.  SchoolDigger, a national school-rating website, currently ranks Ramapo High School 824th out of New York’s 1113 public high schools.  Less than 75 percent of students graduate, and of those that do, only 40 percent continue to four-year institutions.  Most publicity the district receives today centers around fights, arrests, and gangs.  This is a starkly different picture from twenty years ago, when East Ramapo was, according to my mother, a long-time resident, “considered one of the best school districts around, with some of the best teachers.  That’s not the case anymore.”

More recently, “gone downhill” sometimes tacitly refers to the composition of the East Ramapo school board.  The nine-person elected board has enormous influence on the school district: each member has a say in which lawyer the district should hire, which extracurricular programs to fund, and which union contracts to uphold.

Historically, the board consisted of ardent parents of East Ramapo students.  Over time, however, the town began electing several equally ardent “private school parents”—a local euphemism for Orthodox residents—to the board.  Members of the grassroots group East Ramapo Stakeholders for Public Education, among others, have credited the elections to a supposed Jewish bloc vote combined with general voter apathy.  They have also complained that many of today’s East Ramapo parents are not US citizens and thus have no say in local elections.

As of April 2011, there were five Orthodox or Hasidic Jewish men serving on the nine-member public school board.  All of them send their children to private schools.  These board members included Nathan Rothschild, who served as President of the school board from 1998 until his sudden resignation on April 14.  The following day, he appeared in a US District Court on unrelated felony charges (he is accused of engaging in mail fraud while serving as fire commissioner in Monsey, one of East Ramapo’s more Orthodox neighborhoods).

The East Ramapo Central School District board in 2009. Five of nine members are Hasidic Jewish and send their children to private yeshivas. Photo credit: Vos iz Neias



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Thousands around India have been supporting Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement. (Photo credit: Business Standard)

Published in the Huffington Post on August 19, 2011.

Hat sales are unusually high in India for this time of year. Specifically, white boat-shaped ‘Gandhi caps’ are flying off the shelves. India’s hat makers have a septuagenarian social activist named Kisan Baburao Hazare — popularly known as Anna Hazare — to thank for that.

Across India, Anna Hazare’s supporters have been vociferously protesting the government’s refusal to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill. Drafted by members of the India Against Corruption movement, the bill proposes an independent body, or lokpal, to investigate and prosecute corrupt politicians. While Hazare spent part of the week in jail, thousands have been lighting white candles, wearing “I am Anna” stickers, and donning ‘Gandhi caps’ in support of his cause. Hazare, meanwhile, is refusing to eat or drink anything until the government signs a version of the bill he deems satisfactory.

Emotions are running high, and it has become abundantly clear that the aam aadmi, or common man, is dissatisfied with the level of corruption in the Indian government. It is also clear that with this new international spotlight, the government must start taking corruption seriously.

It is less clear, however, whether passing the proposed Jan Lokpal bill will actually keep government-wide corruption at bay. As with most populist uprisings, the vast majority of supporters have been drawn by the spirit, rather than the letter, of the proposed policy changes. Relatively few of those chanting “Sab neta chor hai” (all politicians are thieves) have been discussing the nuts and bolts of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill.

Unfortunately, while the bill has a very noble end in mind — a government free of corruption — it will not, in its current form, likely get us there. There are several reasons for this.

As mentioned, the bill establishes a new committee to investigate and prosecute corruption in the Indian government. Such an entity, however, does not address the fundamental reasons corruption occurs. It also does not change the inner workings of the government to make it corruption-proof in the future. Nandan Nilekani, chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (and former head of Infosys Technologies), highlighted in an interview the need to address the systemic causes of Indian corruption:

You obviously need surveillance and audit, but that’s a layer you put on top of a functioning, streamlined system. A surveillance and audit cannot be a substitute for that. That’s one of the conceptual problems I have with many of these proposals, is that nobody’s talking about how we fix the underlying things. [Instead], we create one more army of people who are going to inspect something that already is not working.

Second, the structure of the proposed lokpal is troubling from a legal standpoint. Unlike other public institutions in India, the committee’s powers reach across several dimensions, putting it in violation of the democratic ideal of checks and balances. For instance, it both investigates crimes and prosecutes those found guilty — awarding it powers that are usually separated. Given this, some lawyers, including Arghya Sengupta, worry whether the proposed lokpal is itself corruption-proof. “You don’t build institutions thinking all members will be guardian angels,” said Sengupta, member of the Delhi-based think tank Pre-Legislative Briefing Services, in a phone interview. “You design them to take care of [potential] bad apples who will be on the committee fifty years from now.”

Finally, even if the bill were carefully designed, Hazare’s supporters must remember that overturning society involves much more than passing a law. “There’s this notion that you can change the world by changing a law,” said Anush Kapadia, Harvard lecturer and expert on Indian political economy. “[The Jan Lokpal Bill] is almost a utopian idea of what a law can do. You have to remember, however, that you cannot read outcomes from design.” Pouring so much energy into the passage of this bill may, in the long run, be detrimental to the larger cause.

Anna Hazare and his supporters should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished. This movement has brought unprecedented light to an enormous thorn in Indian democracy. At this point, however, they should let go of their specific demands and instead allow a much wider ring of experts to develop methods that will, in due course, systemically weed out corruption.

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