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October 14, 2020 4:35 am

Resisting the Normalization of Antisemitism in High Schools

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avatar by Yael Lerman


Redwood High School in Marin County, California. Photo: Redwood High School.

An alarming incident recently occurred in Marin County, California, when high school students, associating themselves with Nazis, used social media to target specific Jewish students by name and recruit others to join. This is not an isolated incident. It is astonishingly typical of what high school students are reporting to legal staffers at StandWithUs and elsewhere. As outlined below, antisemitism in high schools today manifests in five main ways, and is commonplace, pervasive, and far more systemic than before.

The most persistent type of antisemitism that high school students report is what could be called “casual antisemitism” — offensive jokes about Jews and Israelis; social media videos mocking the Holocaust; telling a Jewish student they are not welcome at an event or as an ally because they are Jewish; socially punishing a Jewish student for reporting antisemitism. This type of behavior is discriminatory but not necessarily illegal. It is worrisome because it both ostracizes Jews and destigmatizes antisemitism.

Likewise, Jewish students are increasingly reporting being threatened and targeted, often in criminal ways that are legally actionable. Jewish students report to us: they drew swastikas on my arm; they etched swastikas onto my car; they vandalized my synagogue; they tried to attack me; they threatened anti-Jewish violence online.

There is also the familiar academic antisemitism, where teachers relay so-called facts about the Middle East in a classically antisemitic framework — Israel as thief, bloodthirsty killer, or perpetrator of genocide. Students know this is false but are afraid to speak out for fear of grade retribution. Teachers thus simultaneously silence students and imbue hatred of Israel with academic legitimacy.

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Likewise, teenagers are confused by the assertion that, “I’m not antisemitic, I’m just anti-Zionist.” Whether the speaker makes this claim out of ignorance or malice, Jewish students intuitively feel attacked. We advocate that students stand up for all aspects of their core Jewish identity — Zionism included. So students now have this challenge and battle: to expose the haters hiding behind the mask of anti-Zionism.

Lastly, there is the danger of an insidious type of antisemitism arising as schools revamp their curricula and priorities in response to recent political trends. Where political activism is framed in terms of oppressed and oppressor, exploited and exploiter, some opportunists insert their hate into the broader agenda. A recent example was the first draft of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which included blatant promotion of antisemitism and anti-Israel extremism.

There are several risks here: as antisemites within political movements see their hatred going unchallenged, it becomes more ingrained in their activism. Such societal indifference to antisemitism within political movements will engender a broader acceptance of it. Finally, political activists tend to overlook or excuse the misdeeds of allies because they believe the overall cause is too important to undermine with infighting. Thus, at a recent assembly at an elite private high school, as part of a presentation on racism, the speaker encouraged students to emulate Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory. Jewish students were shocked to hear figures with very public records of antisemitism promoted as role models.

As students report such incidents of antisemitism, we must step up our efforts to fight back every time. For instance, we recently learned that certain high school students were posting antisemitic content online — calling Jews apes and posting Tiktok videos extolling violence against Zionists. Other students then began sharing and reposting the antisemitic content. Jewish students from the school contacted us, wanting to fight back but unclear of how to proceed. We helped Jewish students express concern to their administration about the growing antisemitism in the school community, citing relevant codes of conduct being violated. We are grateful that this school responded commendably with swift action against those students spewing hatred, and by instituting education about antisemitism for the student body. Whether responding to “casual antisemitism” online or illegal antisemitic crimes, Jewish students are increasingly on the front line. Our partnership with these students empowers them to be courageous and fight back.

Elie Wiesel once said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” As we see antisemitism rising and attempting to normalize itself in high schools and beyond, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of silence.

Yael Lerman is the director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, providing legal resources to students, professors, and community activists confronting antisemitic and anti-Israel activity.

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