Combating Anti-Semitism in Schools
Teachers can support their Jewish students and colleagues by being vocal allies and not tiptoeing around anti-Semitism.
Many years ago, I almost didn’t get a job I was more than qualified for because I am an Orthodox Jew. I didn’t find out about this until a year after the fact when my principal shared that during the hiring process, a reference stated that while my work was excellent, I missed too many days of work for Jewish holidays. Incidentally, the number of missed days usually amounted to about seven total in a calendar year, and I never left any work undone. My reputation and evaluations were stellar. However, in this person’s eyes, my Jewishness condemned me so thoroughly that they felt entitled to break Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by engaging in an act of religious bias.
Incidents of anti-Semitism are rising in schools nationwide (as this recent Anti-Defamation League [ADL] audit shows). It has gradually become more socially acceptable to engage in acts against Jews that fall anywhere between exclusion and persecution on the spectrum of anti-Semitism. Perhaps one Jewish student takes a zero for an assignment she could not complete the night a fast day ended, while another furtively takes his kippah (yarmulke) off when entering school so that other students don’t mock him—or worse.
Educators across the country are struggling not just to stop this rising tide of hatred but also to send clear messages of support to Jewish students and teachers. To make effective change, everyone must be equipped with knowledge and engage in vocal advocacy, both to mitigate prejudice and to make schools more inclusive for Jewish people.
Most students know a few essential facts about the Holocaust. However, the Holocaust is not an anomaly but is instead illustrative of the persecution that Jews have experienced, and continue to experience, throughout history. Teachers can call upon resources that help them learn right along with their students. For example, PBS has compiled a webpage titled “The Story of the Jews” with a specific section of classroom resources for teachers. The National Museum of American Jewish History also has a comprehensive page for educators that includes sample lesson plans and workshop offerings.
To apply some of this knowledge in a mainstream curriculum, teachers might think about making visible how anti-Semitism appears throughout history, including in art and literature. For example, the witches in Macbeth make an ominous brew out of “liver of blaspheming Jew,” a line many teachers tiptoe around. Instead, teachers can pause and talk about the beliefs behind those words and why they are hurtful. Teachers can perhaps also use the opportunity to address tropes and stereotypes about Jews more generally.
Be a vocal ally
When Jewish students come to school only to be faced with offensive language or hateful symbols, they can feel alone in their struggles. To avoid affirming a sense of otherness for Jews, people in authority must be vocal advocates and decry anti-Semitism. Silence can come across as complicity. Classroom tools from organizations like the ADL and local chapters of the Jewish Community Relations Council provide a helpful framework for delving into tricky content.
Anti-Semitism isn’t limited to the past: During a time when hateful acts like drawing swastikas in schools are experiencing a resurgence, learning about what that symbol means can go a long way toward helping students understand why the image is so jarring and offensive.
Teachers may also need to address the common trope that Jewish people hold a subversive degree of power and are somehow controlling society behind the scenes. With your students, take a look at some of the more recent allegations. Some politicians have asserted that giant space lasers financed by the Rothschild family caused California wildfires in 2021, an accusation grounded in fallacious beliefs about Jewish wealth. Then, take time to deconstruct and dismantle the blatant anti-Semitism behind the statement.
Create spaces that validate Judaism
Although many schools teach students about holidays across cultures and religions, others exclude all but one majority group from any school-based celebrations. Holidays that seem innocuous (think Halloween, Valentine’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day) may be minefields for observant Jewish students whose families consider these days inappropriate to celebrate based on their roots in other religions.
For example, suppose a kid is talking to a Jewish classmate and says, “Wait, you don’t even put up a Christmas tree in your house? That’s so crazy!” Rather than let that moment of otherness for the Jewish student pass unchecked, any teacher nearby should explain the religious bias in that observation. Teachers should rethink classroom activities that center on content around certain religious traditions, like calculating the velocity of Santa’s sleigh in the winter.
Educators can help students minimize the disruption of instructional activities that either are tied to the mainstream Christian calendar or occur on the Sabbath (the Jewish day of rest each Saturday, when activities like driving or using electronics are prohibited) or Jewish holidays. Being informed about observances and holidays is easy to do. That way, when Jewish students nervously approach a teacher about upcoming absences, they do not have to struggle to explain themselves.
Learn about the experiences of Jewish kids—and Jewish educators
Just as schools already work to meet a variety of other dietary considerations (medical needs, allergies, vegetarianism), it is also possible to think about religious parameters for any kind of staff or student celebration. For example, those who keep kosher have complex dietary restrictions, so it can be helpful to communicate with Jewish students or colleagues to ensure that nobody is sitting self-consciously at a gathering without anything to eat. I remember being pleasantly surprised when I transferred to a new school and an administrator came up to me the day before a staff welcome meal to ask if I could eat pizza from the local kosher restaurant.
Many other religions also come with dietary restrictions (such as halal guidelines for Islamic students). Creating a planning group with representation from across your community to advise school celebrations can ensure that everyone is included.
Anti-Semitism exists along a continuum between attempted erasure and outright persecution. Jews in America can speak to any number of the following experiences: Being called by the “k” word as we walk down the street. Finding anti-Semitic flyers on our doorsteps. Feeling guilty at best or penalized at worst when we miss work or school for religious observance. Defending ourselves against lies that frame us as disproportionately powerful and ill-intentioned.
Thankfully, there is a solution. In schools, we can work together to dismantle the seeds of hate before they become too deeply rooted in culture and climate. The way to make the hatred stop is to learn more and teach students about what they’re seeing, to openly address and debunk damaging tropes and stereotypes, and to speak up for Jewish teachers and students alike. Education and advocacy will result in the changes so many people are waiting to see.