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What My Son Learned at School: Antisemitism Comes Home

What My Son Learned at School: Antisemitism Comes Home

WAITING AND WAITING

It’s Monday, February 4, 2019.

Today, we wait for the school district’s response to grievances we filed after a rash of antisemitic hate speech at our son’s school. We involved the district after school leadership dismissed, disputed, and maligned our son’s reports and our concerns.

Last weekend, in the aftermath of these incidents and our son’s transfer to a different school, he sobbed, “Why does everybody hate me?” We did our best to explain prejudice, why people would degrade, defame, and wish us—or anyone—harm because of who they are. We offered our sons theories on the origins of hate, explanations that are never adequate, that offer no solace.

And today, we wait.

While we wait, we deal with the residual trauma of this experience—hateful abuse compounded by the school’s antagonism. And we’re dealing with the stress of adjusting to a new school. We’re happy to have our son in a positive new environment, but profoundly unhappy about the circumstances necessitating his transfer.

CONTEXT MATTERS

Those who know the history of the Nazi regime know it enlisted children in its hateful campaigns against Jews. Schools became hostile, then dangerous, and eventually closed to Jewish students.

Stefan, my great uncle, could not attend university to study engineering because he was Jewish. In the photo below, my great grandmother teaches my young aunt to write her name on a chalk board—likely because, as a Jew, she was barred from receiving an education outside the home.

Rosa Moldovan, my great grandmother, teaches my aunt, Erika Goldberger, at home on a chalk board. Jewish students were barred from school during the Nazi regime.
Rosa Moldovan, my great grandmother, teaches my aunt Erika on a chalk board. Jewish students were barred from school during the Nazi regime. Erika and Rosa were murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.

In any context, but especially in the context of this history, my son’s experience should be sounding alarm bells for everyone—but especially within the district in which this occurred.

BACK TO SCHOOL

To date, we don’t know how and even if my son’s school followed up on the antisemitic incidents that occurred there. We heard excuses, including, “You can’t control what kids are going to say,” and, “You can’t change what people believe.”

Many of my concerns and suggestions were ignored or maligned. I was accused of having a “desire for punishment” when I requested effective consequences for students who yell slurs, make light of genocide, draw swastikas, and make statements such as, “Jesus hates Jews.”

At school, my son was introduced to the term dirty Jew, one concept used by Nazis to promote the ghettoization and eventual extermination of Jews. Days after eleven Jews were murdered while observing Shabbat in their Pittsburgh synagogue, a student at my son’s school said, “I call upon Jesus to kill all Jews.” And after students taunted our son with a swastika, administration failed to contact us for days after our report. They refused even to tell us if the offender was identified. After we sought out the school resource officer, we were told that—yes—the offender was identified, but that he was absolved of responsibility because he said he drew this and “other symbols” all the time and didn’t understand what they meant.

I was told these behaviors don’t qualify as hate speech and don’t merit significant consequences. As incidents continued, an administrator actually suggested having our son followed all day by an aide. Student privacy policy was misrepresented and misused, seemingly to keep us in the dark and shield students and administrators from accountability. And instead of expressing concern for our son’s wellbeing, school leadership cast doubt on the specificity, timeliness, and actionability of his reports.

Instead of being held accountable, offenders were cast as innocent victims, I was accused of having a “desire for punishment,” and no one—no one—stood up for what was and what is right.

THE DAILY HATRED

Hate comes in rashes and barrages. I never thought of myself as anything less than human, but today’s headlines report every day about new ways someone has come up with to degrade, dehumanize, and brutalize Jews and other minorities.

This is the indelible lesson my son learned at school: Some people will hate and abuse him for who he is. And he learned that those in power won’t stand up for him, and further, will turn on him.

As we wait for the school district to respond, the words of these students, administrators, and district officials ring in my head. Dirty Jew. Fucking Jew. I call upon Jesus to kill all Jews. You can’t change what people believe.

And I hear this statement from another district staff member: This isn’t going to go away no matter what we do. This was repeated to me twice, like a promise, a mantra, or a lesson in “how things work.”

When teachers and administrators lose or give up control of the culture and climate in their schools, standards of common civility can give way and schools can become breeding grounds for hate.

I don’t expect the district to solve all of the antisemitism in the whole world—only to act earnestly and appropriately where they have influence. What I’ve asked for is effective action—diversity education for students and staff, commensurate consequences that uphold standards of behavior, improvements to school culture—measures that help ensure healthy, inclusive, equitable educational environments for all.

FAIR AND BALANCED

These are fair requests, which I’ve conveyed respectfully, diplomatically, and repeatedly in many different words and contexts. If I know anything, it’s how to play nice.

And also, I’m angry. I’m angry that school was the place that introduced my sons to hatred, and that any student would be targeted with hate-based abuse. I’m angry that we’re still waiting for a response from the school district. I’m angry at how individuals and institutions rationalize hate-based violence and language. I’m angry at adults who renege on their duties as role models and educators, who do nothing to counter abuse and even participate in it with fresh antagonism.

Schools become complicit when they dismiss, dispute, and malign victims. This compounds the trauma and helps normalize prejudice and hate.

SOUNDING THE ALARM

The alarm has been sounding for a long time. And now, it won’t give me a moment’s peace. It sounds like dirty Jew and fucking Jew and kill all Jews. I hear my son sobbing, Why does everybody hate me.

I see the spider arms of a swastika, black on blood red. I hear, This isn’t going to go away no matter what we do.

These words ring in my head. And the longer they do, the more determined I become to stop what I’ve been told will happen again, to stand up every time I’m told to sit down.

3 Comments

  1. Brice White on February 8, 2019 at 7:50 am

    This is chilling. In waiting for the school district to respond, does it make sense to remind them that they (the administration and the district) can be held accountable for actions taken by their students while under their care? There is clear documentation that links hate speech to other forms of harassment and violence. Essentially, my question is this: does it make sense to contact the Anti Defamation League ( (303) 830-7177) or at the very least, your own legal counsel?
    When the district responds with this level of carelessness, it’s important to recognize that they are doing what they think works: hoping that the problem will go away when the reporting family leaves. Unfortunately, that leaves other families open to the same abuse.
    I’ll keep following this, since I hope that it can be resolved without further pain for you or other families.

  2. Johannah Knudson on February 8, 2019 at 9:50 am

    Hi, Brice, I agree with everything you’ve said. Thanks for your support.

    We filed formal civil rights grievances within the district and are waiting for their reply and proposed remedies. I’ve spoken in front of the board of education three times with other supporters and my message has been clear that this is a symptom of an underlying problem that must be addressed to stop this from happening to other students. I’ve repeated this in multiple meetings and countless emails. The local paper published my letter to the editor in which I made this point. We’ve also involved the ADL.

    One of the problems seems to be adminstration’s misrepresentation of and district policy and using it to stonewall and protect itself from responsibility and accountability. Of course, this strategy escalates the situation rather than leading to effective solutions. I haven’t yet felt like there has been adequate or appropriate concern commensurate with the severity of these incidents.

    My feeling is that the underlying message from the district has been that my son has been transferred to a school we like better so we should be happy and grateful. This is like thinking you can put out a forest fire with a squirt gun. It feels like deflection from not only the larger problem with hate-based bullying in the district but from the indelible pain of what happened to my son.

    My goal is to make systemic change for the benefit of all students. This is hard with organizations that seem more concerned with defending themselves than defending students.

    I’ll write more about this as the situation progresses and as we deal with the aftermath as a family. Thanks again for your words of support.

  3. Deborah on February 19, 2019 at 7:23 am

    I am so sorry for all you pain and hurt. I wish there was a way for you to find out who the child(ren) are and invite them and their parent(s) for lunch or find a way and a place to show them you are no different than they are and to express how personally hurt you and your son feel, how deeply those slurs and symbols scar, and how once you say and draw them, you cannot undo it. Peace and love and understanding and self-love and all the beauty the world has to offer to you ❤️

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