Alarming Rise of Antisemitic Behavior in Schools

By | Mar 23, 2023
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A swastika carved into a blue wooden school desk. From the ADL's 2022 audit.

By now it is widely recognized in the Jewish world that antisemitism is on the rise in America. According to the Audit of Antisemitic Incidents for 2022 released Thursday by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), antisemitic incidents of all kinds rose 36 percent from 2021. Of these, 53 percent were against visibly Orthodox Jews. The 3,697 incidents in 2022 was the highest yearly total since ADL began its tracking in 1979. However the report also highlights a less-publicized element of that uptick: Antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault in middle and high schools, which increased by a stark 49 percent over 2021.

“We are concerned about the long term impact of antisemitic bullying on children’s emotional health and on how they perceive their Jewishness,” says Aryeh Tuchman, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. “Every Jewish child has the right to an education that is free from antisemitic vandalism, harassment, or assault.”

Among the incidents noted in the ADL 2022 audit were instances of a student telling another, “Ew Jew. Why don’t you kill yourself,” and a student shouting in the middle of class, “If anyone celebrates Yom Kippur today, you can die!” The audit noted that of 232 vandalism cases, 88 percent involved swastikas. Scrawled hate messages included “Kill all Jews,” “6M Oven,” and “Hitler was right.”

Antisemitic school harassment is a particular hazard. “Bullying is the most underreported,” says Tuchman of the ADL. “Many Jewish kids may not realize that there is anyone to report their antisemitic experiences to, or may be fearful of reporting out of concern that the bullying could get worse.”

Youthful perpetrators are at a particularly impulsive stage of development—Teenage brains are not fully formed, and the consequences of offensive or hurtful behavior can take a back seat to the thrill of exhibiting it.

“It’s not truly ingrained antisemitism as much as it is performative, attention-building behavior,” says Jennifer Goss, a former high school teacher who now is a program manager for Echoes & Reflections, a Holocaust-education consortium of the ADL, the Shoah Foundation and Israel-based Yad Vashem. Nevertheless, “this is a time when identities begin to crystalize,” says Goss. Kids may come to “feel antisemitism is part of their identity, it’s a good thing.”

Young people may view it as something akin to a fad. “When I speak at schools and with students, I am told that it is ‘cool’ to say antisemitic remarks,” says Michael Abramson, chair of the North Carolina Commission on the Holocaust and a leading advocate for Holocaust education in the state. He’s been tracking school incidents since 1994 and says, “this is the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s no longer isolated events.”

There have been several recent notable examples in North Carolina, including an eighth grader telling a Jewish classmate “You’re the reason I hate all Jews” at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill; antisemitic bathroom graffiti, also at Culbreth, that named two Jewish students with the warning “I’m going to make your life a living hell, watch your back” (it was the third time since November 2022 that the two students had been targeted this way); and a student in nearby Raleigh hacking into the public address system to shout “Heil Hitler” and threats against President Biden.

“There is little punishment for saying these remarks and the student receives lots of attention,” Abramson notes. For example, the student who shouted “Heil Hitler!” over the school public address system was handed a three-day suspension. (School authorities also changed access to the public-address system to prevent hacking.)

“It’s striking to see how teenagers view (antisemitism) as ‘funny,’ without realizing how devastating it can be,” says Dr. Louis Kraus, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “They can’t conceptualize cause-and-effect.”

The pathways toward antisemitism for teenagers might include taking cues from celebrities like Ye (Kanye West). When Ye talks about the “Jewish underground media mafia,” or promises to go “death con 3 on Jewish people,” youth take note both of the words and the reaction. The same is true for the controversy around NBA player Kyrie Irving, who apologized for posting a link to an antisemitic documentary—and then deleted the apology.

Social media is also of high concern, with extremist and offensive content readily available on platforms such as TikTok, which has more than a billion users worldwide. Examples include claims that Jews caused COVID, Holocaust denial, and a split-screen video in which a young man pointing inside an open oven door is paired with a Jewish creator’s video about Passover customs. “Extremists have found a home on TikTok, exploiting the platform’s young audience and lax security to prey on the vulnerable,’’ Israeli researchers Gabriel Weimann and Natalie Masri wrote in their authoritative report, “TikTok’s Spiral of Antisemitism.”

For impressionable minds, the imagery can be catnip. “It’s an age when kids test boundaries and try things on for size,” says Goss of Echoes & Reflections. On the other hand, antisemitism and other forms of hatred represent only a fraction of TikTok’s billion-user culture. “I don’t think incidents (of antisemitism) are going to go away if social media goes away,” says Sheila Desai of the National Association of School Psychologists. “It’s not that simple. Social media might impact some kids but not all kids. A lot of kids interact who are not engaging in hate crimes.”

While school administrators typically express outrage over antisemitic incidents, many may feel their self-interest lies in letting it fade away rather than confronting it head on.

TikTok is hardly the first online platform exploited by antisemites. Started in 2003, 4Chan is by now the old-timer of platforms that include antisemitic elements. The ADL described 4Chan’s “politically incorrect” board as “a forum that is notorious for extremely high levels of hateful rhetoric, including racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, white supremacy and antisemitism.” 4Chan also is a spawning ground for antisemitic memes such as “1488” (“14” is the number of words in an American white supremacists declaration on guaranteeing “the future for white children. The number, “88,” represents doubling the eighth letter of the alphabet, “H,” signifying “Heil Hitler.”) Such memes have appeared a few times in antisemitic graffiti scrawled on or near schools. For instance, on the grounds of a school in Staten Island NY,  vandals spray-painted a swastika, SS bolts, 1488 and 6MWE (“Six Million Wasn’t Enough”) on a tree. Other platforms notorious for antisemitic content include Gab, Telegram and Discord.

Interactive games such as Roblox, an online construction game popular among kids and teens, also present opportunities for players to engage in hateful expression in the guise of entertainment. One such production on Roblox warns of “offensive content merely for joke purposes.” It features Lego-like characters in the striped clothing of concentration camp victims being marched around, shot or led to a gas chamber by uniformed guards with swastika armbands. Roblox insists it has taken steps to remove offensive content. But the ADL gave it a grade of D-minus in a review of platforms, interactive games and message boards.

Controversies (including charges of antisemitism) during the presidency of Donald Trump plus the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in his final year in office may have compounded the impact of antisemitism on young people. “As kids were sitting at home on their computers, we know that exposure to a lot of antisemitic stuff online really brought more of this to the forefront,” says Yehudah Potok, director of the Jewish education program for Facing History & Ourselves, which works with schools on helping students connect the history of hate, bigotry and genocide to modern times.

A surprising explanation to the prevalence of antisemitism in school, some say, is Holocaust education. In some cases, students learning about World War II and the Holocaust have reportedly acted out in class with Nazi salutes, cries of “Heil Hitler” and other expressions of antisemitism.

One New Jersey parent, who asked not to be identified, said his two sons both witnessed antisemitic actions in 8th grade while reading Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night in English class. One son chose to identify himself in class as partly Jewish, while the other one did not. “The older son was more of a target than the second son, who didn’t say anything,” noted the parent. “But both heard things like `Hitler didn’t do enough’ and ‘off to the gas chamber.’ They had a trip to the Holocaust Museum in DC, and someone was joking on the way back, ‘I will not rest until we get to ‘Holocaust 2.0.’” Interestingly, in both cases, the antisemitic behavior that coincided with Holocaust education came to a halt after the unit was over.

"Kill all Jews" spraypainted on a tree. From the ADL's audit.

“Kill all Jews” spraypainted on a tree. Photo credit: The ADL’s Audit of Antisemitic Incidents for 2022.

Tuchman of the ADL’s Center on Extremism says he’s heard much the same thing anecdotally. “Kids in middle and high school learning about WWII and the Holocaust for the first time are also at an age when they are increasingly developing an awareness of in-groups and out-groups,” he says.

“Nevertheless, dispensing with or downplaying Holocaust education is not the answer,” Tuchman adds. “The Holocaust showed us the evil that people are capable of. Ignoring those lessons is not an option if we want our society to never go down that same dark path.”

In fact, experts on antisemitism say education is the only way out. “Educate, educate, educate, for sure,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, professor of Jewish studies and director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. “It’s also important that political, cultural, religious and educational leadership speak out unambiguously. None of this is a magic cure. It’s not going to go away all that quickly.”

Sometimes teachers end up perpetuating antisemitism instead of educating against it. Whether unwittingly or not, they utter phrases that undermine learning about antisemitism as a societal evil. Parents of Jewish children at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill, NC, have maintained an informal list of incidents involving teachers at the school over the past 12 years. Among them: saying that antisemitism isn’t actually an issue anymore because “now all the Jews have money and are in Hollywood anyway”; telling students the COVID pandemic and isolation are just like being in a concentration camp; and saying that the Japanese internment camps in the United States were just as bad as death camps but don’t get enough discussion.

“It’s not truly ingrained antisemitism as much as it is performative, attention-building behavior,” says Jennifer Goss, a former high school teacher.

Each incident, “no matter how seemingly small, exposes Jewish children to exclusion and opens the path for others to act in a bolder, more threatening manner,” said the president of Culbreth Middle School’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association, Jill Simon, at a February 14 school board meeting.

While not making excuses, some educators say teachers often are only as good as the society that produces them. “People don’t do a good job teaching what they don’t know,” says Gene Woods, a history teacher at Bayonne High School in New Jersey. A specialist in Holocaust education, he describes himself as having grown up in a “hateful household”—racist, homophobic and prone to occasional antisemitic jokes and comments. “It was a disaster,” he recalls. But it motivated him to break with the past and pursue a vision of human equality and appreciation of diversity. “Sometimes teachers don’t get to branch out. So they say what was said to them.”

While school administrators typically express outrage over antisemitic incidents, many may feel their self-interest lies in letting it fade away rather than confronting it head on. “It’s like the school says ‘that’s horrible,’ and then there’s radio silence,” says Simon, president of the Culbreth Middle School PTSA.

Although individual incidents often draw media coverage, the impact on Jewish students is not always fully explored. “We are afraid to go to school,” said one Jewish student at Walt Whitman High school in Bethesda, MD, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “I feel unsafe.” Last December, the words “Jews Not Welcome” were spray-painted on a sign outside the school. Whitman is located in Montgomery County, a premier suburb of Washington, DC, that has witnessed an explosion of antisemitic speech and vandalism—nine incidents at four schools in the month of February alone.

While some students who have faced antisemitism turn inward others find these incidents strengthen their identity. Jennifer Bienstock, the mother of one of the boys targeted in bathroom graffiti at Culbreth, told the Raleigh News & Observer that her son “was an absolute mess” after it happened. Then, gathering up his courage, he asked his mother for a Jewish star to wear around his neck to show “he’s not afraid to be Jewish.”

8 thoughts on “Alarming Rise of Antisemitic Behavior in Schools

  1. Anita Lieb says:

    I grew up in Bayonne,NJ. My children grew up in Montgomery County,Md. these places were once havens for Jewish students. It is sad, painful and frightening to read of the rise of anti-semitism in these areas. I am afraid the world I am leaving to my fully committed Jewish children & grandchildren is scary.

  2. Eliezer Segal says:

    Excellent article. The boy at the end of the article, asking his mother to put a star of David chain around his neck, is most inspiring. Fighting anti-Jewish hatred with pride.

    1. Toni Mehler says:

      Bravo!!

      1. Toni Mehler says:

        Oops. Got cut off. I meant Bravo young Mr. Bienstock!!

  3. hag says:

    Congratulations MR Trump

  4. Davida Brown says:

    Many adolescents are very immature and want to be funny and deflect from their own feelings of inadequacy; middle school (junior high in my time) is notorious for immature behavior and attitudes. Possibly, it is not the best time for holocaust education. The later high school years might be more productive in a positive way. Younger people can’t handle “heavy” very well. They don’t know how to process it. Things have changed radically and dramatically since I was in school. I went to school in the Northeast and the Southeast and don’t remember any words or incidents of anti-Semitism. There were quite a few Jewish teenagers in my high school and everyone mixed well together and didn’t notice differences. Life was certainly different then from now. What has changed, we may ask ourselves? The big issue in the south was racism. I was shocked when moving down. Times change and so do hearts.

    1. m says:

      pre middle school educate children AND their parents

  5. Barbara Berman says:

    In the late 40’s, my father instructed me (while waiting on customers in our small store) to ignore those customers who used antisemitic slurs such as “kike”.
    I knew, at a young age, that it was wrong, but we needed the business and the war was still a recent memory.
    Not much has changed.

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