Pulling Back Curtain on Story of Anti-Semitism in Upstate New York Pine Bush Schools

The Essential Questions Not Asked or Answered

pine bush school district

By Gal Beckerman

Published November 14, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
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The first question is pretty easy to answer. The Anti-Defamation League keeps the most vigilant tallies on anti-Semitic incidents in the United States. It is, so to speak, the group’s bread and butter. And this summer, the ADL’s annual report showed that in 2012 there was a 14% decline in the number of anti-Semitic incidents, continuing a three-year downward trend. To quantify it further, they counted 927 incidents in 2012, which included 17 physical assaults on Jewish individuals, 470 cases of harassment and threats, and 440 cases of vandalism.

The 3,500-page deposition in the federal case against the Pine Bush school district contains the names of 35 students accused of engaging in dozens of acts that would fall in the categories of harassment and vandalism. This means that this small rural school district has a disproportionate number of the total anti-Semitic incidents in the country.

So what’s going on in this town? All we learn from the story is that in the 1970s a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon lived in Pine Bush, though this is quickly undercut by the ADL’s report that Klan activity in the region has been nonexistent for years. This is followed up with the reporter’s own anecdotal evidence: being yelled at by a mechanic in a pick up truck who opined that Jews don’t know how to drive and, “we don’t want them in our town.” That’s it by way of explanation.

What the article could use is a bit of sociology. Who are the families of these children that are learning to expertly draw swastikas or recount Holocaust jokes that sound passed down from a grandfather? When did Jews begin to settle in Pine Bush and has there been any conflict reported in the past? What kind of class issues are also at work in the town — do Jews represent an upper middle class whose children are sharing classrooms with the children of poor whites? If the Klan is really dead, are there other outlets for white power culture and do they exist in Pine Bush?

The questions could go on. I’m not expecting an academic survey of the region, but in lieu of any real explanations for this strange behavior, we are just presented with the story of an oddity. What ends up taking up much more of the reporter’s attention is the Jewish superintendent who keeps shoving his foot in his mouth, telling parents that “If you want your kids to hang out with more Jewish children or have more tolerance, why would you pick a community like Pine Bush?”

It’s a tired complaint to say a news article lacks context, but that’s what I want to say here. And without a bigger back story or some deeper investigation as to the source of this bubbling hate, all we have is an article that does one of two things: It either feeds an unwarranted hysteria about creeping anti-Semitism or just provides a titillating read about the strange doings upstate for the Upper West Siders who make up the Times core audience. What it does not do, and doesn’t seem concerned with doing, is get us any closer to understanding why those kids have found themselves in such a terrifying environment.

Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s opinion editor and writes a monthly column about the media. Contact him at beckerman@forward.com or on Twitter @galbeckerman


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