A few years ago, I sat my children down for The Talk. No, not that one about “the birds and the bees.” This conversation was about something quite different: antisemitism. We needed to discuss why, sight unseen, so many people would hate them for their entire lives, and why that hatred could easily lead to oppression, violence, or even death.
My grandparents on both sides fled the countries of their births to survive systematic extermination. My paternal grandfather left Ukraine in the face of the immediate threat of pogroms. His future wife, my grandmother, stole out of Russia with her siblings on a sled in the middle of the night because all the Jewish boys in her village were being rounded up and shot. My maternal grandparents narrowly escaped the horrors of the Holocaust in Germany, though their families were murdered in the camps. They fled east and got as far as Shanghai, where Japanese occupation created ghettos for the Jews, once again resulting in oppression and death.
When I was a little girl, I often heard stories about my family history. “Never get too attached to any place,” my elders would tell me. “Always have your passport updated.”
Once they arrived in the United States, my grandparents were what we now call “cautiously optimistic” about living in America. Still, they had seen democracies crumble, Jews scapegoated, time and time again. The lessons of history were never fully in the past.
And, now, the past once again becomes the present. With incidents of antisemitism gaining more traction every day in the United States and in our schools, educators must ask ourselves what to do to counter it in the classroom.
I live in one of the purportedly more enlightened corners of America in a county where fully 10 percent of the inhabitants are Jewish. The Montgomery County, Md., school district provides days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One would think this is perhaps among the safest of places for Jewish people to live, and yet, (as this article about antisemitic graffiti at schools in the county aptly summarizes) that is far from true. Whether the increasing number of acts of hatred are motivated by truly antisemitic feelings or simply a wish for the thrill of negative attention is immaterial. The question is, how do we turn this tide of hatred?
Antisemitism has a long and complex history dating back thousands of years.
My professional role is centered on curriculum development and instruction for English/language arts and literacy, so I have already seen signs of trouble in districts nationwide with the escalation of censorship—both in relation to books and instruction itself. In every democracy that crumbles, one of the first things to go is access to education—so readily available within the pages of books. As incidents of hatred continue to grow, schools attempt to manage them. But however well-intentioned, education leaders often look at correlation, not causation. In other words, the profound why of oppression goes ignored.
As an illustration, experts widely recommend that schools increase their levels of student awareness about antisemitism in the form of Holocaust education. Schools may opt to bring in survivors (whose numbers are diminishing every day) for talks, teach well-known texts (many of them recently questioned or banned, such as Maus or The Diary of Anne Frank), and provide more detail about what happened in Germany during the height of Hitler’s reign. The problem is learning about what occurred in the late 1930s and early 1940s examines a result, not a cause.
Antisemitism has a long and complex history dating back thousands of years. For those who follow the Jewish calendar, this is the year 5783, and hatred goes back a long way in the existence of lies (think blood libel, which perpetuates the disgusting lie that Jews used the blood of Christians, especially children, for religious rituals) and in damaging and untrue tropes that I won’t name but that a large percentage of people who consider themselves educated believe, either overtly or without even realizing it. Antisemitism is so ingrained in our culture that one of the top films on Netflix right now, “You People” (2023), peddles highly damaging lies and stereotypes about Jews under the guise of controversy without so much as the slightest real attempt to debunk any misinformation.
The best way to combat antisemitism is not to teach about only one isolated event, even one as significant as the Holocaust. Instead, educating students about the true story of the Jewish people is key.
It is also imperative to share, expose, and prove untrue common tropes, as uncomfortable as it may be. A few years ago, when I heard students in the hallway talking about “stingy Jews” and stopped to challenge them, the students’ surprise at my vehemence came from not ever pausing to consider why that label might be wrong. It was accepted “truth” along with many other beliefs that they had absorbed in the course of their young lives.
The Anti-Defamation League warns us that “while antisemitism has sometimes escalated to violent or genocidal levels, it more often appears in subtler ways, such as insensitive remarks that are brushed off, or negative stereotypes that go unchallenged.” For the students we educate, it is not enough to show them the horrors of the Holocaust. We need to go further and teach them that in times of instability, Jews become the target of blame, hatred, and oppression. We need to increase their awareness of the lies that people tell and of the tropes that have no basis in truth. Otherwise, schools are not doing their jobs.
It might be uncomfortable to address topics like fictitious Jewish space lasers, threatening tweets, and graffiti on school walls telling Jewish students to “go home.” But if educators continue to ignore these warning signs and look only to the past, they are consigning their Jewish students to hatred—now and in the future.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Fighting the Rise in Antisemitism: Advice for Teachers