Jewish high school students face emboldened anti-Semites


April 19, 2019

When Democrats failed to explicitly rebuke Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for her anti-Semitic remarks, they sent a disturbing message beyond the Beltway—namely, that it is acceptable to use anti-Semitic tropes without facing any consequences. This was the latest sign of the normalization of anti-Semitism, which is also reflected in the tolerance of anti-Semitism on college campuses, and the effect that it is beginning to have on younger Jews.

I recently met with a group of high school students, and asked if any of them had experienced anti-Semitism at school. Shockingly, 18 of the 20 (one was not Jewish) raised their hands.

At a private Christian school where there are only a handful of Jews, one of the most vocal students is a frequent target. She said that someone in a computer science class programmed a robot to say “Heil Hitler” and salute. “He showed it to me because I’m pretty much the representative of the Jews for my grade.”

Another student said that one of her Catholic friends told her she was going to hell. When she replied, “I don’t think that’s how that works,” the friend said that he would check with his father. He came back later and said, “Yeah, I was right.”

One young woman said that a kid in her class “said something to someone next to me about how he was going to hire a Jewish lawyer to take all of his money.” In another instance, he told her “he loved Hitler.” When she asked him to stop making these comments, he laughed.

A freshman was horrified when a boy asked if she wanted to hear a Holocaust joke. “Why would I want to?” she replied.

The next day, someone from the National Guard came to speak at her school. When the teacher asked if anyone was considering joining the Guard, “this kid who sits behind me looks at me and goes, ‘I want to go to Israel to shoot Jews.’” She said that her first reaction was to get up and walk away. “I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to react.”

In some cases, teachers and principals are unaware of what’s going on under their noses. But when an anti-Semitic incident is brought to their attention, their response is often inadequate. For example, when someone asked a girl about the bracelets she was selling for a bat mitzvah project, “He said, ‘You’re Jewish,’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m German so get the f—out of here and go back to Auschwitz.’”

She was stunned. “Knowing someone who escaped Auschwitz, I was appalled. It’s disgusting and it’s hurtful.”

The next day, she reported the student, and was told that since it was his first offense, they were going to give him a “do better” talk. She recognized a double-standard, one that she will also find when she gets to college: “If a white person had said that to an African-American, the school would be all over it. But when someone told me to go to Auschwitz, the only thing they were going to do was give him a ‘do better’ talk.”

The harassment didn’t stop: “The next PE class, he and a bunch of his friends shouted at me, basically cat-calling and saying awful insults, and calling me a ‘kike.’ I didn’t know what to do. I kept telling myself it’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything to them.”

One Jew from the Christian school doesn’t let the abuse go unanswered. She wrote a speech about “how anti-Semitic jokes aren’t funny, and a lot stems from ignorance and making assumptions, and thinking things are funny because that’s their way of explaining things they don’t understand.” She gave the speech to the entire high school, and the Board of Trustees. Sadly, the harassment continued.

Young Jews often get little or no support from their peers or their schools. Like other bullies, anti-Semites are encouraged if they see they are getting to their victims, and the targets of abuse are reluctant to say anything for fear of getting a reputation for telling on others and making things worse. One student said, “If you call someone out, people think you’re some sort of prude.”

We are a nation that now tolerates anti-Semites at the highest level of American politics. Bigots are emboldened, and Jews are threatened. But why should anyone worry about teenagers who express hatred for Jews; after all, one day they could be elected to Congress.

Mitchell Bard is executive director of American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and Jewish Virtual Library.


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