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Combatting Anti-Semitism In The Classroom Should Not Fall To Jews

We are suffering from a resurgence of hate. Almost no one is safe. People of color, immigrants, children, the LGBTQ+ community, women and Jews have all suffered under reinvigorated white nationalism. Their hate-filled rhetoric has led to horrific violence, leaving the Jewish community to wrestle with how to respond to this rising tide of anti-Semitsm.

For educators like us, schools are an important place to start. Schools are reflections of communities, and hate and violence has trickled down into these spaces of learning, shocking for those of us tracking anti-Semitic incidents. The ADL reported 344 incidents in K-12 schools in 2018, much higher than the 114 reported incidents in 2015.

High school students have used Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic language to play drinking games and pose for team photos; elementary schools have seen swastikas chalked onto their playgrounds and a teacher not intervening as a Jewish child was bullied for wearing tzitzit.

Shimon the Righteous asserted in Pirke Avot that the world stands on not one but three things, demonstrating that our tradition recognizes that multiple approaches are necessary to accomplish important work. Based on our research in communities where incidents occurred, we too believe school-based responses to anti-Semitism stand on three intertwined approaches: fostering literacy and connections, participating in allyship, and engaging in identity work.

Helping students, teachers, and administrators become more literate and knowledgeable about Judaism, Jewish history, and more connected with the Jewish community is important for combatting anti-Semitism. Building cultural and religious literacy around what it means to be Jewish helps to foster a concrete understanding of Jewish traditions and histories.

Since hate is based on a process of dehumanization, linking the Jewish experience to the human experience is critical. These activities also play a crucial role in prejudice replacement, an unconscious bias intervention to replace prejudices with knowledge and understanding.

“Cultural sensitivity workshops” that are often mandated after hateful incidents fall into this category. Indeed, some states require schools to offer religious and cultural literacy elective courses; many more states mandate these topics be taught as components of the core curriculum. When carried out in a meaningful way, these understandings of the Jewish people can help inoculate communities from hateful events and be a part of an offender’s repentance and learning process.

Jewish communal institutions are well positioned to provide support in fostering literacy and connections using curricula widely available from organizations like Facing History and Ourselves and the Anti-Defamation League, connecting schools and perpetrators with survivors of the Holocaust as powerful reminders of the ends of anti-Semitic behaviors, and by promoting programs like Student to Student that connects non-Jewish to Jewish students.

Fostering literacy and connections in schools are concrete steps that Jewish communities can take granting Jewish communities agency in the face of hate and prejudice. Yet the prevailing politics of white and Christian grievance have shifted the conversation from prejudice to protection: protecting the majority’s status, beliefs, and even psychological comfort.

An appropriate response from the school community in the face of anti-Semitism under these terms is allyship. The school community needs to stand with the Jewish community by showing support through symbols of solidarity such as wearing blue and committing to ongoing education to foster a school community that will thwart anti-Semitic incidents in real-time. The role of the Jewish community from this perspective is to ask the broader school community to stand with them in solidarity and to help the school develop norms of accountability. The bulk of the work falls on the non-Jewish community.

We found that there were individuals who wanted to engage in allyship but were unsure how to do so. In discussing her school’s Equality Club, one high school teacher noted that it has become the “African American Students Club” because there is no other space for these students. Students from marginalized communities deserve their own clubs as these strengthen the social fabric of the school, but providing a shared space (including representatives of the majority) where allyship can be sought and enacted provides crucial structures in the fight against anti-Semitism.

Something else that surfaced in our research is the feeling that anti-Semitic incidents happened to the school community, rather than of or by members of the school community. The third approach, therefore, is identity work. This involves examining one’s role in the incident through attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, policies, or previous inaction by the perpetrators, school, district, and community.

Part of this process involves understanding one’s own “cultural footprint”—how one’s own assumptions about the ways the world works has an impact on others (such as Jews) and developing plans for reducing that impact, increasing the safety, representation, and self-definition and determination by minoritized communities.

One school administrator praised the cohesion across the district, even noting that all schools—from the elementary schools to the high school—have the same mascot. He also admitted that those students “…engage in trying to be like the norm and self-[ostracization] because they’re not the norm.” This is not a healthy environment for diversity in general or Jews in particular and allows anti-Semitism to fester and grow unnoticed because addressing the issue is to admit a lack of cohesion. Putting aside ideals of absolute cohesion and addressing and supporting difference while examining one’s own role will facilitate a more inclusive and safer community.

By approaching the prevention of and response to anti-Semitic incidents in these three ways, we believe strides can be made to foster safer and more inclusive schools for Jewish students in particular and students from other minoritized communities more broadly. While it is important for the Jewish community to provide resources, connections, and guidance, the bulk of the work should not fall on us to intercede when anti-Semitism occurs in schools. Instead, it is incumbent upon the individuals, schools, districts, and communities to engage in allyship and start the path of identity work to fully eradicate anti-Semitism, hate, and bigotry from our schools.

Jeremy Forest Price is the Assistant Professor of Technology, Innovation and Pedagogy in Urban Education at Indiana University School of Education-Indianapolis at IUPUI.. He is also the chair of the Jewish Faculty and Staff Council and Faculty Advisor of the Jewish Student Association. Elena Silverman is a third year doctoral student in the urban education studies program at IUPUI and adjunct instructor of education psychology. Her research interests include issues of whiteness in education, memory, and meaning making.

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