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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Chalk it up to being a journalist myself, but it’s usually easy for me to discern the moment in a story when a reporter knows he or she has hit pay dirt — when they can already visualize their byline on the front page. For Benjamin Weiser, a New York Times reporter investigating allegations of anti-Semitism in an upstate New York school district, it came — I’m sure of it — when the school’s superintendent, a Jew himself, described the lawsuit by a group of parents against the school as a “money grab.”

A Jew using an anti-Semitic trope to describe another set of Jews? That’s when the bell goes off. Sure the reported swastikas everywhere are a good detail and the town is only a 90 minute drive from New York City — all of which elevates this local story to national news — but what made it pop was that element that makes any good piece of newspaper journalism resonate: conflict.

This is not to discount the horrible atmosphere it appears has taken over the Pine Bush Central School District (chronicled in the Times article that did indeed make the front page on November 7). Kids suffering daily slurs and pennies thrown at them, crude jokes about the Holocaust, and those swastikas, etched and drawn everywhere.

But what are the implications when a newspaper, for its own reasons, focuses on a story that is not representative of any bigger trend, but can be construed as pointing to one? Amplifying the unusual, the outlier, the counterintuitive conflict is in the DNA of journalism (that man bites dog thing). This seems to be a case study in what happens when that predilection combined with a carelessly framed story can make an audience draw unwarranted conclusions.

And draw conclusions people did, including that this town’s troubles proved anti-Semitism was alive and well in America. There was this Tweet from Daniel Gordis, the prominent American born-Israeli writer, referring to the recent Pew survey that found American Jews rapidly assimilating: “Just as Pew suggests Jews feel totally welcome: Pine Bush, N.Y., School District defends Anti-Semitism.” Much more followed in this vein. One commenter on the Times website took the longest view: “Clearly this is the result of almost 2000 years of church sponsored and encouraged hatred and violence toward Jews.”

Two questions jumped to mind while reading this article: First, how generalizable is the experience of Pine Bush? And, second, if what is happening in this town is indeed unique and peculiar and the reason why the Times felt it merited a 3,000-word story and placement on the front page, has the reporter made it absolutely clear why anti-Semitism has flourished there specifically?

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.