Addressing Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism in K–12 Schools

Teachers can help reduce bullying and stereotyping and ensure that all students feel a sense of belonging in school.

December 13, 2023
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The number of reported incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism has increased dramatically since the Hamas attack in Israel, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and the ensuing war. If, as for so many Americans, these disturbing events evoke feelings of fear and powerlessness, remind yourself that educators are uniquely equipped to create classrooms and schools in which all students feel safe and valued.

In our nation’s schools, students who are Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Muslim, or perceived to be from the Mideast are feeling increasingly unsafe. Some educators, students, and families are grieving personal losses in Israel or Gaza, while many more feel helpless in the face of so much suffering and the tragic loss of life. The pain is exacerbated by hateful and polarizing language on social media, leading to bullying and harassment based on religious and ethnic identities. 

The Department of Education recently sent a “Dear Colleague” letter reminding us of our responsibility as educators to keep all students physically and emotionally safe, citing laws requiring schools to maintain environments free of discrimination.  U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona stated, “Hate has no place in our schools, period. When students are targeted because they are—or are perceived to be—Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry, schools must act to ensure safe and inclusive educational environments where everyone is free to learn.”

This article offers a path forward to ensure that students of all backgrounds feel a deep sense of identity safety. In identity-safe schools, students’ identities are affirmed, and they feel a sense of belonging. My colleagues Dr. Debbie Zacarian and Dan Alpert and I propose ways to ensure that K–12 educators work to stop stereotyping, bullying, and divisiveness.

Bias-based bullying harms whole school communities

Bullying can lead to severe emotional problems, including absenteeism, falling grades, and higher risk factors for suicide. Bias-based bullying goes one step further: It targets not only individuals but an entire group who experience harm from such assaults.

Indeed, at this difficult moment, some educators, especially those of Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Palestinian, and Israeli heritage, are experiencing high levels of fear of reprisal and an uncertain future. The profound impact of the stressors of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism cannot be minimized.

A clear message from educational leaders

At the onset of this tragic war, some leaders crafted messages to students, staff, and families that committed to keeping them safe and free from harassment. Leaders may have the power to set policies, but teachers can bring such aspirations to life by showing that they care about the well-being of each student, including their right to be valued, respected, and safe.

Students must be held to the same commitment for and about one another so that everyone trusts their school as an identity safe space.

The urgency for relaunching prevention policies and practices

Many schools have bullying-prevention policies and practices in place. Many also have anti-bias groups and clubs working to create inclusion and stop all forms of bullying.

There has rarely been a more opportune time to bring our communities together and utilize these tools, revisit them, and make them known to ensure that none of our students are targeted.

Words matter: Stopping hate speech

Educators can help students understand the hurtful impact of negative stereotypes and microaggressions. Even when it’s not their intent, words have the power to do serious harm. Name-calling, threatening harm to a community, and calling for the death of a specific group can lead to deep-seated hurt and, in the worst cases, promote shaming and violence.

Educators must intervene when we witness hate speech and help students learn how to be upstanders who speak up to stop their peers from making hateful comments or tormenting their classmates.

Fostering a pathway to discourse

We are not suggesting avoiding all discussion of the Israel-Hamas war with students and our communities. We believe that such avoidance may play a role in the extreme polarization. Our ability to think critically begins with our willingness to listen to and hold different opinions and perspectives.

In a region as complex and nuanced as the Mideast, the tendency to lapse into right-or-wrong reasoning is a barrier to understanding. We suggest that as educators, we promote civil discourse in classrooms and schools, beginning with listening to and respecting our students and guiding them in listening to and respecting one another, even when they disagree with their peers. Empathy and respect are the guiding principles of these conversations.

Invite students to take the lead in stopping bullying

As educators, we know that students are some of the best teachers who can model civil discourse, respect, and understanding in ways that frequently elude us as adults. Students can play a leading role in addressing bullying.

An example occurred in the Cherry Hill School District in New Jersey. After an alleged fight broke out in the high school cafeteria in connection with the Israel-Hamas war, students from the Jewish Student Union, Muslim Student Association, and Middle Eastern North African Association came together. They issued this joint statement: “We, as student leaders of the Cherry Hill High School East community, are deeply disheartened by the surge in hatred and violence over the past week in our school.... [I]n these challenging times, we must view our fellow peers not as adversaries but as the individuals we’ve grown up alongside since kindergarten. There are no sides in this situation; it’s solely our school united against intolerance.”

In these difficult moments with the ensuing war and the subsequent uptick in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and hate, it is incumbent on us as educational leaders to create a welcoming space that fosters belonging and inclusion for students, families, and staff of all backgrounds and identities.

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Filed Under

  • Diversity
  • Bullying Prevention
  • Classroom Management
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching

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