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March 24, 2022 11:05 am

Building Bridges to Fight Antisemitism in Schools

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avatar by Florina Rodov


An empty classroom. Photo: Wiki Commons.

During last year’s Israel-Hamas war, Brooklyn middle school principal Amanda Bueno sent an email to teachers and administrators urging them to support “Palestine” by demanding the US government implement sanctions against Israel.

A Jewish teacher who felt “very targeted and very attacked by [Bueno’s] words,” according to The New York Post, noted that Bueno mentioned nothing about Hamas rockets raining down on innocent Israeli civilians.

At about the same time, teachers’ unions in Seattle and San Francisco approved resolutions to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that aims to demonize Israel, while economically destroying it.

The Los Angeles union, meanwhile, indefinitely postponed its BDS motion that called for “solidarity with the Palestinian people because of the $3.8 billion annually that the U.S. government gives Israel, thus directly using tax dollars to fund apartheid and war crimes.” By denying Jewish people the right to self-determination and calling Israel a racist state, the union is guilty of antisemitism, according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

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Anti-Israel and antisemitic attitudes are not limited to public schools. At Fieldston, an elite New York private school where tuition is about $58,000, guest speaker Kayum Ahmed, a Columbia Law School lecturer and director at the Open Society Foundation, said that the Holocaust and Israel are examples of victims becoming perpetrators. Following Ahmed’s remarks, history teacher J.B. Brager, who is Jewish, fired off anti-Zionist tweets, and when two rabbis were invited to speak at the school, Brager raised a middle finger to one of them before stalking out of the room, according to The New York Times. Parents got upset and Brager was fired.

In order to combat the anti-Israel vitriol that has infected middle and high schools, the Israeli-American Council (IAC) “has recently launched a campaign to reframe how Israel is presented in U.S. public schools,” according to one news article. The initiative teaches about Israel and its people to Jewish and non-Jewish school officials and teachers through symposiums, intending to be proactive rather than reactive, to unite rather than divide, and “to inoculate against disinformation and distortion,” said an IAC official.

The symposiums have been conducted in various cities including Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Arizona, and have featured speakers like author and executive director of the Maccabee Task Force David Brog; Israeli entrepreneur Idan Udi Edry; professor of music, and Hebrew and Judaic studies educator Karin Hochman; and famous Israeli-American chef Snir Mor.

Food is a great way to bring people together and help them learn about Israel in a positive way, outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the Scottsdale symposium, Mor “gave a hummus-making demo and talked about food reflecting Israel as a cultural ‘melting pot on steroids,’” which counters the false narrative of Israel as an apartheid, colonial, and white-supremacist state that has captured progressive classrooms.

The symposiums have been well received, with many teachers expressing interest in the subject, and none objecting to it. This encouraging news confirms my personal belief that most teachers are open-minded.

Those who may have been swayed against Israel by colleagues or the media can change their minds when they learn that the Jewish people are indigenous to Israel, that Israel is a beacon for LGBTQ rights, and that it has historically opened its arms to refugees from all over the world. In fact, it’s doing so right now with Ukrainians who are fleeing Putin’s war.

The IAC plans to hold additional symposiums and may send speakers to schools to conduct presentations directly to students, which is an excellent idea, given kids’ curiosity, openness, and desire to build bridges between cultures.

I saw this first-hand when I taught in Upper Manhattan. Next door to our high school, where most students were Dominican, was a nursing home where many tenants were Jewish and some were Holocaust survivors. Several of my students volunteered there a few afternoons a week and bonded with the elders. The kids celebrated Hanukah and Rosh Hashanah with them, and hung on their every word as they shared stories about the Holocaust and explained how vital the land of Israel was to the Jewish people.

One student became so enamored of Jewish and Israeli culture that he immersed himself in Judaic studies when he got to college, and eventually converted to Judaism. He’s now a public school teacher in the Bronx.

As the IAC and other groups grow their campaign, they should target cities like New York and Los Angeles, where antisemitic attacks are soaring. They should also expand beyond public schools, as antisemitic incidents are happening at charter schools and private schools too.

Furthermore, these groups should add Israeli athletes Omri Casspi and Sue Bird to their speaker lineup, as well as actors like Gal Gadot. They should also invite actors who’ve played Israelis on film to speak to students. Imagine the look on kids’ faces if they could see Captain America Chris Evans, who portrayed an Israeli Mossad agent leading a mission to transport Ethiopian Jewish refugees to Israel in the film “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” walk into their classroom to talk about the state of Israel.

As the IAC’s Jake Bennett said, “So much of what Jewish organizations across America do is reactive in nature. You see an antisemitic incident pop up, and you react. You see an anti-Zionist BDS initiative pop up and you react. This is an attempt to be proactive.”

Let’s hope it works.

Florina Rodov has written for The Atlantic, The Forward, Newsweek, and others, and is working on a book.

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