Opinion

Opinion | Steve Wessler

Our schools’ secret shame: Anti-Semitism is a regular occurrence

Chanting "White lives matter!" "You will not replace us!" and "Jews will not replace us!" several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists carrying torches marched in a parade through the University of Virginia campus on Aug. 11. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post.
Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post
Several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists carrying torches marched through the University of Virginia campus on August 11.

The chants of “Jews won’t replace us,” shirts bearing quotes from Hitler, and signs with swastikas we saw on Saturday in Charlottesville may have startled Americans who believe that virulent anti-Semitism is a thing of the past. But for those of us who spend time listening to American middle and high school students, it was no surprise at all.

I have seen anti-Jewish bias in American schools for 25 years, first when I directed a statewide unit in the Maine attorney general’s office, working with local and state police to obtain restraining orders against people who engaged in bias-motivated violence and threats, and later in my ongoing work to reduce bias-motivated bullying and harassment in schools.

When I work with schools on anti-bias strategies, I begin by doing focus groups with students, something I’ve now done in dozens of schools across the United States. In most schools, I have seen high levels of degrading language about people of color, immigrants, girls, LGBTQ students, Muslims, and Jews.

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Anti-Jewish bias in schools, which seems to have increased over the past decade, focuses on two themes. One is traditional stereotypes about Jews, including about their physical appearance (large noses and curly hair) and about their supposed obsession with money. I have heard many accounts of students throwing pennies or quarters in front of Jewish students.

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The other is the Holocaust. Students tell me that graffiti about the Holocaust are widespread: Swastikas etched into desks, scrawled on walls, written on notebooks. And there’s a seemingly endless array of “jokes” about that genocide. “How many Jews can you fit in a car? Two in the back seat, two in the front seat — and a million in the ash tray.” “What is the difference between a Boy Scout and a Jew? The Boy Scout comes back from camp.”

Sitting with high school and middle school students, I hear of widespread use of negative words, comments, and stereotypes about Jews occurring both in schools where most students know many Jewish students, and also in schools where most students do not think they ever have met a Jew, whether in or outside school. The schools include suburban schools close to larger eastern cities, small cities from the northwest, and New England towns.

In addition to my deep concern for the well-being of Jewish students, I worry about the impact of anti-Semitic language and conduct on non-Jewish students who know very little about Jews and Judaism, and may not even know a Jewish person. I worry that years of hearing degrading language and stereotypes about Jews will infect them with bias. How will they react as adults if anti-Semitism rises significantly across the United States? Will they join the anti-Semites? Will they stay quiet, thinking that those stereotypes may be accurate?

I never thought I would see a US president fail to condemn outrageously racist and anti-Semitic words and violence forcefully and immediately. The message that the supremacist movement received from the president’s extraordinarily weak response was empowering. But I also worry that his initial failure to clearly and unambiguously address anti-Semitism and racism sends a message to students that their jokes, their slurs, their swastikas, and their thrown pennies are acceptable. It is hard to conceive of a response from the president that could be more irresponsible and dismaying.

Steve Wessler is a consultant who designs anti-bias and anti-harassment programs for schools in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at stevewessler@gmail.com or via his website, stevewessler.com.