The Middle East conflict has claimed a casualty in Miami Beach: the career of an outspoken teacher at a Jewish day school who posted inflammatory remarks from his home computer on a pro-Palestinian website.
Michael Lopez-Calderon, a 40-year-old, non-Jewish Cuban-American, was teaching social studies and economics at the Hebrew Academy's Rabbi Alexander S. Gross High School for the fifth year when he was asked to take paid leave on March 2.
Volunteer school board president Adrian Muller said the ``pro-Israel, pro-peace'' Orthodox institution, with almost 500 students, won't renew his $31,000 contract for the fall.
Lopez-Calderon sees himself as something of a First Amendment martyr and the victim of anonymous ``blackmailers'' whose smear campaign backed school officials into a corner.
``I have not hesitated to get involved in things I believe in,'' he said.
And he believes Israel is oppressing the Palestinians as surely as a racist white American government once oppressed blacks.
He has plenty of support (though in Florida, a right-to-work state, little chance of reinstatement at a private school).
The website, hosted by Palestine Media Watch, is circulating a cyber-petition calling it ``shocking and shameful'' that an American's privately expressed opinions could result in ``discrimination on political grounds.''
Muller said Lopez-Calderon's views -- which both sides say he kept out of the classroom -- weren't the problem.
Rather, it was his ``extremely bad judgment,'' which Muller said could have jeopardized his students by targeting the school.
On Jan. 8, Lopez-Calderon was identified on pmwatch.org as a Miami-area Jewish day-school teacher.
Five weeks later on the same site, he condoned the killing of Israeli soldiers in a noncombat setting.
Lopez-Calderon, who protested apartheid in South Africa as a college student, already had made his views on the Middle East known. In a Jan. 6 letter to The Miami Herald, he accused the Israeli government of using ``promiscuous lethal force'' against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Israeli settlers of stealing Palestinian land.
He wasn't disciplined, even though his opinions shocked and angered many at the school, Muller said.
``At no other private school would he have been allowed to make provocative statements in The Herald and still have a job,'' said Muller, an investment advisor. ``We chose to stand for the First Amendment and put his rights ahead of our feelings.''
Lopez-Calderon, whose late father was a Batista-era Cuban naval officer, lives in a single rented room in Little Havana.
He publicly supported Elián González's return to Cuba, and calls Brothers to the Rescue flights ``provocations.''
An atheist, he has taught at religious schools: Catholic Lourdes Academy before the Hebrew Academy, with a stint as a Saudi Arabian prince's private tutor.
FOLLOWED BY TROUBLE
``Trouble,'' he said, ``it follows me everywhere,'' most recently to the teacher's lounge at Gross. That's where he says he heard callous comments about the shooting death of a Palestinian teenager.
``It broke me,'' he said. ``I'm a social studies teacher, for God's sake!''
He then posted his outraged dispatches, which he now regrets, calling some of them ``self-righteous,'' and ``a bit much.''
Lopez-Calderon's e-mails supported a Palestinian bus driver who plowed into a crowd of Israelis, killing seven soldiers and a civilian on Feb. 14.
``Well, what did they [the Israelis] expect?'' Lopez-Calderon posted at 10:07 a.m. ``After yet another assassination, another round of tank and rocket fire into a refugee camp in Gaza and after two unarmed Palestinian workers were shot dead at IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] checkpoints, it should come as no surprise that [the driver] decided to deliver bitter medicine to a group of IDF soldiers . . .
``We regret the death of the civilian, but the soldiers are fair game as long as the murderous, racist (re: Apartheid) occupation continues. . . . Bury your dead warriors today, Israel, for many such funerals wait.''
Ten minutes later, he referenced an incident involving a Palestinian teenager ``shot dead in disputed circumstances as he walked home from school near a Jewish settlement in Gaza.'' He added, ```And the Palestinians are supposed to react to this like some insensate creatures? Roll buses, roll!''
Arthur Teitelbaum, the Anti-Defamation League Southern area director, called Palestine Media Watch ``pretty straightforward. It advocates the Palestinian position, urges people to write news organizations.''
However, some anti-Semitic hate sites link to it. So the e-mails transformed a free-speech issue into a matter of safety, Muller said.
A person whom the school won't name -- reportedly a Broward County woman with children at another South Florida Jewish day school -- learned of the postings from a contact ``out of state,'' Muller said, and called the Hebrew Academy to find out if Calderon was on staff.
Muller said she was ``very upset,'' convinced that Lopez-Calderon was inviting danger wherever he was teaching.
She faxed the e-mails to school administrators, parents, teachers and students. She threatened to demonstrate.
Given the uproar, Lopez-Calderon doesn't blame the school for letting him go.
He blames those who ``monitored'' a subscription e-mail service, and suspects it was Israeli government agents.
His e-mails were among the first he'd ever sent.
``My greatest fear,'' he said, ``is that people at the school might think I'm an anti-Semite.''
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald
Michael Lopez-Calderon can be reached at: Agrippa727@cs.com