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PARENTING UNFILTERED

Why do kids engage in antisemitic incidents?

Acts of hate are on the rise. Kids should be innocent, right? Phil Fogelman, education director for ADL New England, explains why they happen (and how to address them).

Kara Baskin asked Phil Fogelman, education director for ADL New England, a short — but not simple — question: Why do kids engage in antisemitic incidents in the first place?Adobe Stock

Massachusetts faces the country’s sixth-highest rate of antisemitic harassment, vandalism, and assault, according to a 2023 report from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

Nationwide, the ADL documented 3,283 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7, 2023, and Jan. 7, according to a new report. It’s a 360 percent increase from the same period a year earlier.

It hits close to home. Before my seventh-grader’s winter break, I got an email from school: Swastika graffiti was found in a stairway. So I asked Phil Fogelman, education director for ADL New England, a short — but not simple — question: Why do kids engage in antisemitic incidents in the first place?

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What’s going on in the mind of teenagers who do this?

I think that there are a lot of reasons why we’re seeing an uptick in antisemitic activities among youth — and, in particular, teenagers.

We have to consider the context: what’s happening, but also what can be done to help prevent it. I think it begins earlier. Kids grow up to be teenagers. What we’re seeing in schools right now are incidents at the elementary school level, where young children repeat things they heard at home, that they’ve seen on television, or have even heard about through social media and peers. Stereotypes aren’t being addressed as much as they need to be at a young age. By the time kids get into middle school, they’re already carrying those stereotypes with them. Young people in particular might be doing it for attention, but they’re also doing it because it’s become normalized.

On top of that, there’s a lot of peer pressure to go along to get along. Sometimes, young people want to stand out, and they think it’s cool to do something like that. Sometimes, they don’t understand the impact of what it is they’re doing. And oftentimes, they say, “Well, I didn’t really mean it” or, “I didn’t understand how it would hurt anybody because it was just graffiti,” or, “It was just something other people say all the time.” They might try to dismiss or minimize it. If their family doesn’t think it’s a big deal either, that reinforces in the child’s mind that it isn’t.

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Years ago, a group of eighth-graders went to the Holocaust Memorial in D.C. for a class trip. When they came back, they wrote Holocaust jokes in each other’s yearbooks. One has to wonder: How and why would kids do that after having gone to the Holocaust Memorial and seeing what the Holocaust was all about?

Exactly: Why?

Part of it has to do with group dynamics. Whomever initiated the so-called Holocaust jokes and comments, others imitated it, thinking it was either funny or cool without stopping to think about what they were doing, and the implications and impact that it would have. There’s a disconnect that young people often have. There needs to be greater education at a young age.

In terms of prevention, if kids aren’t getting the education in schools, parents need to educate themselves so that they can educate their children and challenge stereotypes when they see them, so children understand that stereotypes exist and that they need to be challenged, because they’re not accurate.

What are you seeing among elementary schoolers, who are so young?

What we’re seeing is young children making comments about people who are Jewish. In one instance, a primary-grade student said to another student who’s Jewish, “I don’t want to play with you, because Jews are bad people.” We’ve had reports of that at the ADL repeatedly. It’s pretty widespread.

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It’s hard to say that it’s coming from their homes. In some cases it is. But it’s also things that they’re hearing. They may not understand the implications or the impact of what they’re saying. That’s why it’s so important for schools to communicate to parents the issues that are taking place. Even if it’s not communicated to the school at large, it’s important for parents of students in a particular class where something like that may have been communicated to understand that it was said. Provide parents with resources and materials to help them talk to their children. If it’s not addressed, they might internalize it and think: “Nobody addressed it; therefore, it’s true or it’s accurate.” When my child was young, one of the times that worked to talk to him about things in general was in the car, because that was a way that he would listen. Keep the channels of communication open with the child so that they can share things that they’ve heard and seen.

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What you’re saying is concerning, how some kids are hearing this at home. Is this something that you have statistics and data on? Or is it anecdotal from people reporting incidents to you? Not to sound naïve, but a lot of people might believe: “I would never think that or say that!” Clearly, people do.

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It’s a great question. I would say there’s no way to tell for sure. We don’t have statistics on it. It is, to some degree, anecdotal. But there are incidents reported to ADL that, when we contact the school or families, we learn what the child said actually was something that they learned at home. It’s one of the reasons it’s happening. As an adult, I’ve heard other adults say things that are the equivalent of an antisemitic slur or using language that’s antisemitic. Maybe they’re not realizing it; maybe it’s the way that they were brought up. Even if it’s not the immediate family, it can be members of an extended family. It can be members of the community who say something in public that a child overhears. If they hear it more than once, they start to think, “Well, it must be true, especially if it’s coming from an adult.” Children look at adults as authority figures who know better.

Why graffiti, specifically? Is it attention? Is it to get a rise out of people?

We see this oftentimes in bathrooms. They want other people to see it, but they don’t necessarily want to get caught. For some kids, they might want to see if they can get away with it. A young person will perpetrate a hateful or bias incident and will share what they did with peers but not necessarily with the larger community. Sometimes, their peers don’t report it, and sometimes they do. Young kids, oftentimes, know the difference between right and wrong. But they do it anyway because they think it’s cool; they think that it’s going to give them a sense of power, if you will.

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What typically unfolds after such an incident if it’s reported? What are the consequences?

The consequences historically have been more punitive and disciplinary. In recent years, there’s more of an effort to provide education to young people. If it’s something illegal, there might be consequences in the judicial system, community service, things like that. But, even then, oftentimes, the judicial system recommends some form of education for the perpetrators.

Many parents could think: “My kid would never do that.” But maybe they do. What action do you take at home?

Parents don’t have conversations with their kids about these topics. It could be for the same reasons that teachers don’t: Parents don’t feel comfortable having the conversation. I’m talking about even before their child is found to have perpetrated something. Have they had open conversations about stereotypes? If they have had those conversations, and their child ends up perpetrating incidents, it’s important for families to have a conversation about: Why did you do that? Where did it come from?

It’s important to turn it into an educational opportunity for the child and to help the child understand the impact and the consequences of actions. Sometimes, people’s first inclination is to punish. That doesn’t teach the person the harm that was caused. It oftentimes creates more defensiveness, and communication will shut down at that point.

Consequences are one thing, but the harm could seem like an abstraction. What’s the impact of these actions?

I approach it from the perspective of identity. Each of us is a human being with feelings; we all have different aspects of identity. We should all be treated with respect and dignity for those aspects. When kids come to school, it’s important for every child to feel safe. When we’re talking about the impact, it’s helpful to teach young children that it’s a question of safety. It’s a question of respect, dignity, and belonging, and the kind of environment that we would want our own children to have.

When my own child was targeted in sixth grade, a parent of another child called and shared what was happening because her daughter was in the same class and told her mother what was happening to our child. That mother, who was friends with us, shared it.

Often, parents come together for school-related events, parent-teacher conferences, things like that. But I think parents could come together as a group, and not necessarily a formal group, like a PTO or anything like that, at a grade level. Oftentimes, parents of children who are in the same grade will run into each other when picking up their child from school or at the bus stop. Include it as part of your connection to each other, in terms of keeping your eyes and ears open and informing each other of things that you’re hearing and seeing with your own children and other children.

What’s going to dissuade kids from doing this in the future?

I think a couple of things: One is education and consistent messages that counter the harmful influences that impact them. They’re not addressed until kids get older, and they’re in middle school and an incident happens.

[Instead of] addressing these incidents on an isolated, as-needed basis, we have to look at the systems in place that allow these incidents to happen again and again. When we’re talking about systemic change, we need to educate children at home. Because homes are one of the greatest influences on young people. The message that’s given at home also has to be reinforced in school. And it has to be reinforced in school consistently, not just when an incident happens.

What would that look like?

Education should be embedded in every grade level, in an age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate manner … not just sending somebody who said something harmful to the office. Educators need to have the knowledge, the skills, the support that they need from families and from school administrators to be able to turn these incidents into teachable moments — and for kids to be able to have these kinds of conversations with each other. Kids listen to other kids, sometimes more than they listen to adults.

Interview was edited and condensed.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her @kcbaskin.