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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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