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Student Well-Being Opinion

How Teachers Can Do Better by Jewish Students This Chanukah

3 common mistakes to avoid
By Miriam Plotinsky — December 08, 2023 4 min read
3d rendering Low key image of menorah Jewish holiday Hanukkah background with candle lights
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This week marks the celebration of Chanukah. Though the holiday is a festive one, Chanukah commemorates a dark time in Jewish history around the year 200 B.C.E during the reign of Antiochus, who both systematically oppressed Jews by taking away their rights to practice any form of religion and killed them on a massive scale. The unlikely victory of the significantly outnumbered Jewish Maccabees over Antiochus’ army resulted in a happy outcome, but the history behind Chanukah includes a familiar narrative about the oppression of Jewish people that spans thousands of years.

The worry and prejudice described in this ancient story is unfortunately apropos in current times, especially for the many students who feel unable to reveal their Jewish identities in school out of the fear they will be targeted.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, incidents of antisemitism in America have ramped up by roughly 400 percent since the latest war between Israel and Hamas began Oct. 7—after already having been on the rise for several years. Nowhere are these occurrences more disturbing than on college campuses. Just this week, university presidents were questioned on Capitol Hill about their plan to stop antisemitism on campuses in the increase of incendiary language that explicitly calls for the destruction of the Jewish people.

While these events are an alarming indicator of the more widespread acceptance of antisemitism and act as stark reminders of how Hitler gradually took power in Germany with the normalization of Jew hatred, there is another academic setting that also shows signs of this same disturbing trend: K-12. Teachers may express momentary shock and dismay at the continued increase in school-based incidents, but they do not know how to respond, which often comes across as apathy. Jewish students need to see that their teachers care about them. For that to happen, three pervasive mistakes that educators are making need to change.

1. Do not assume that school is a safe space for Jewish kids.

More than ever, Jewish students are laying low to avoid being bullied or attacked. The most common sign of antisemitic sentiment in the elementary and secondary realm takes the form of swastikas, whether they are drawn on desks or etched on cinder block walls. These incidents are also now increasingly accompanied by hate speech and confrontation. In universities, physical violence has also been intensifying, and it is only a matter of time before this behavior spreads to younger students. Whether Jewish children do not openly recognize Chanukah this week, or they hide their identities throughout the year (many boys are now afraid to wear their yarmulkes, for example), it is time for schools to start recognizing that Jewish students are not feeling psychologically or physically safe.

2. Remember that not all Jewish kids think the same way or have the same beliefs.

Jewish students tend to sit at the intersection of more than one cultural identity, not to mention racial identity. Jews come from all corners of the world. They are Sephardic or Ashkenazic and are also both ethnically as well as religiously diverse. In the United States, many Jewish students (particularly those who are not religiously observant) identify largely with American culture as much or more than they connect to their identity as Jews, and they are therefore confused and scared to learn that so many people hate them, sight unseen.

In addition, the wide range of Jewish experience and belief is incredibly complex, which befits a group of people whose calendar goes back nearly 6,000 years. It is therefore ignorant to assume that just because one Jewish person has a certain opinion, all Jews agree. It is also not OK to ask any Jewish student to speak as a representative on behalf of their peers, which singles them out in a way that is truly tone deaf.

3. Do not remain silent when Jewish students are targeted.

Students who have experienced antisemitism in school need to know that their teachers do not condone this behavior. Unfortunately, silence can imply agreement. As a result, during a time when so much hatred is directed their way, Jewish kids are left wondering whether peers and teachers may tacitly share these feelings.

Hate does not exist in a vacuum—it starts somewhere. Recent incidents of antisemitism on university campuses are terrifying, but we all need to understand that this hatred germinates in the earlier grades in large part because it either goes unchecked or because expressions of antisemitism have been normalized. When globally influential figures like Elon Musk overtly support conspiracy theories about American Jews without serious consequences, the message Jewish kids receive is that nobody will protect them, much less stand up for them. It is therefore imperative that teachers make their Jewish students feel welcome and cherished.

Ultimately, it is the job of all educators to ensure that Jewish students do not feel as though they are alone in their desire to hold a place in this world without fear of erasure or persecution. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently shared in his speech on the Senate floor contextualizing Jewish history, “I have noticed a significant disparity between how Jewish people regard the rise of antisemitism and how many of my non-Jewish friends regard it. To us, the Jewish people, the rise of antisemitism is a crisis, a five-alarm fire that must be extinguished. For so many other people of goodwill, it is merely a problem, a matter of concern.”

Jewish children make up a miniscule percentage of the U.S. population and an even smaller one worldwide, and their current reality is fear and instability. Teachers are influential and hold the power to change this world for the better, should they so choose. If there were ever a time to step up and live by the adage “never again,” it is now.

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