Antisemitism: What Can We Do?
By David Fair
Cantor-Educator of the United Jewish School in Grand Rapids, MI
I am sad and I am angry. Antisemitism still exists and it’s actually getting worse. I am angry that our secular schools aren’t doing more to fight it. I am sad that our children still have to experience it. I feel despair knowing that we’re not going to be able to banish it during our lifetime. We have to sit with this awful plague in our world – a plague that is as old as the ancient Pharaohs.
As the director of a religious school, I feel parental. Just as a parent cannot prevent their child from experiencing disappointment and heartbreak, I cannot prevent my students from experiencing antisemitism.
However, I don’t believe it’s as hopeless as it can sometimes feel. And I definitely don’t believe that there’s nothing we can do.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
As a spiritual leader, the best thing I can do for you is empower others to take action. You are not helpless and you are not powerless. There is so much that you can do. You’re angry? Use that righteous anger!
- When’s the next town hall public forum in your city? Attend and share your experiences. Do you know who your county commissioner is? How about your area’s state representative? Who is your school district’s superintendent? Find out how you can communicate with them and let them know what you need and how you feel!
- Partner with your kid’s teacher in their secular school. Ask them if you can come into the classroom and share some personal experiences that would be appropriate for that age-group to hear. My mom did this every year! My brothers and I were the only Jewish family in our elementary and middle schools, so she would come in twice a year: once shortly before Chanukah to talk about our family’s Chanukah traditions and once before Yom Hashoah and talk how antisemitism had personally touched her life. It was a wonderful partnership she had with our schools! Teachers looked forward to working with her.
- You have the right and the duty to speak with people in your life (friends, family, coworkers, doctors, professors) from other faith traditions and ask them if they are doing anything to fight antisemitism. It’s okay if they feel uncomfortable with this conversation. In an article recently published on Npr.org entitled, “How to address antisemitic rhetoric when you encounter it,” Dov Waxman states, “We need to kind of point [antisemitic comments] out, without shaming that person, without responding to them as if they’re an anti-Semite. Saying, ‘Well, you know, you may not mean it. You may not be aware of this, but what you said is actually antisemitic,’ and explaining why it is.”
As a professional educator of Jewish children, I want you to know that you have permission to have these difficult conversations with your children. It is never too early to have a conversation about prejudice. (They see it much earlier than we think they do.) When I want to have a conversation with Kindergarten children about antisemitism, racism, and sexism, I read them any of the myriad of books designed for this age group about these difficult topics. After we read the story, we have conversations where I use language like this:
- “Some people are not nice to people who don’t look like them. Is that okay? What can we say when we see someone is not being nice?”
- “Some boys (or girls) are not nice to girls (or boys). Some kids are not nice to kids who are non-binary. Is that okay? What can we say when we see someone is not being nice?”
- “Some people are not nice to Jewish people. Is that okay? What can we say when we see someone is not being nice?”
Nothing about those conversations is confusing or scarring. It’s a gentle way to prepare their brains for further conversations. (These are similar conversations we might have about bullying.) These conversations needn’t be long. A short 5-minute conversation can be deeply impactful. This plants a seed in their minds so that when we talk about it again in 1st grade, they’re familiar with this conversation and we can build on that in an age-appropriate way. Even speaking about it for one day a year can be incredibly powerful.
TEACHING ABOUT ANTISEMITISM
At the United Jewish School, we start talking about the act of antisemitism as early as possible. We focus on the history of antisemitism starting in the 7th grade. We teach as much as we can, but teaching all of Jewish history in a once-a-week Jewish religious school is a challenge. In the 29 Sundays that our religious school meets this year, we try to fit in: Torah study, holiday study, customs, traditions, prayers, values, Israel education, and much more, so we have to be thoughtful and intentional about how much time we can dedicate to antisemitism and the Holocaust. All of these subjects are important. We want to convey to our students the seriousness of antisemitism and prepare them for how it will touch their lives, but we don’t want to overshadow the fact that Judaism is full of so much joy and light!
ENGAGING IN YOUR JUDAISM
Another excellent way to battle antisemitism is to have Jewish pride and a strong Jewish community. The value of coming to religious school and making gingerbread Sukkot and singing “Bim Bam” should not be undervalued.
Being active in the Jewish community is in itself a defiant act against antisemitism.
When you sign your kid up for your Synagogue’s teen trip to do whitewater rafting, sledding, or challah baking, that is an intentional act combating antisemitism. Participating in synagogue programming, community service projects, and building friendships are all ways to build that support system within the Jewish community.
I had a really thorough Jewish education, but my childhood religious school was only a small part of that. I was fortunate enough to take courses in modern Jewish history when I was a university student. I also had a Mom who loved reading Jewish literature and I got to witness that. As a parent, you can be an equal partner in your child’s antisemitism education. I encourage parents to borrow books from the library or watch documentaries on Jewish history. You might be surprised at how interested your children become in Jewish history when they see how passionate you are in learning about this topic.
RESPONDING TO ANTISEMITISM
How do we teach our children to “respond” to antisemitism? First things first, they have to be able to identify it. At the United Jewish School, we teach our children exactly what it has looked like throughout history, so our students know exactly what it looks and sounds like. When antisemitism rears its nasty head, we don’t want our children to be confused and shocked. We want children to say to themselves, “Oh, I recognize this. This is really familiar. We learned about this. This is antisemitism.” If they are clear about what it is that they’re experiencing, they can take next steps.
After being able to identify it, the next step is seeking accountability. This step is different for younger vs. older children. For young children, I would never advise them to respond in the moment to antisemitism. It’s not the job of a child to defend themself from an antisemitic attack. (This is the same advice I would give to any child who is dealing with bullying.) As an educator, my instructions are always to go tell an adult. It’s serious and it’s worth telling a grown-up about right away. I recently heard a parent say, “I didn’t want to tell the principal because I didn’t want to get that child in trouble. Then they’ll blame us–the Jews!” If someone commits an antisemitic act and you report them, you are not getting them in trouble; they got themselves in trouble. And furthermore, if you don’t hold them accountable, they will continue to spew their antisemitism to others. As Waxman notes in the previously referenced article when speaking about the artist formerly known as Kanye West, “Allowing his comments to pass is dangerous because it can legitimize or normalize those kinds of comments.”
Older children are capable of having more powerful conversations with each other. Whereas a 7-year-old who draws a swastika might be emulating a parent and doesn’t realize the true implications of that act, a teenager is different. A teenager absolutely needs to be engaged with, and I believe that a peer can be that engagement.
I will often do a role-playing activity with teenagers to give them verbal tools. We rehearse using phrases such as:
- “What you just said makes me feel very uncomfortable.”
- “That is hateful language and it’s not okay for you to say that.”
- “Please stop using that language.”
- “It hurts me when you say that.”
- “What was your intent when you said that?”
I advise teens to keep their voices in low and quiet tones and ask that person deep, personal questions, and use “I” statements.
But I want to reiterate, it is also a perfectly responsible and courageous action to not engage with an antisemite and instead, go straight to an adult. Someone who is spewing hate is capable of violence and an altercation won’t accomplish anything.
Lastly, if you feel like there’s more that your community can be doing to fight antisemitism and your leaders aren’t taking action, become a leader yourself. Take matters into your own hands. Tell your synagogue’s or your JCC’s Executive Director that you want to form a task force tackling antisemitism. Create a graphic that advertises this group and tell the president to put in the monthly bulletin, weekly email, and on social media. Reserve the library or a conference room for a weekly one-hour meeting. Ask a board member to be in attendance. Contact the ADL to advise and support the group. Invite guest speakers and open these meetings to the entire community. I can tell you, as a synagogue leader myself, if a congregant said that to me, I’d say, “Amazing! Do it! How can I support this? I’ll tell the choir and our Torah study group.”
I’ve studied enough history to know that in the face of impossible obstacles, the Jewish people have been incredibly resilient. We have gone through countless periods of government-sanctioned prejudice, discrimination, genocide, and persecution, and somehow, we have not only survived, we have thrived! Like the Maccabees, we know how to fight. Like Josephus, we know our history. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, no one can tell us that our voices are not powerful. We know who we are. We are leaders. Now, let’s go be a light unto the nations!