Young Voices: Antisemitism in our schools

By: Isaac Karp

On the morning of November 6, 2018, students at Binghamton High School were greeted by swastikas painted on a school window. Several other swastikas were emblazoned on some local businesses as well, making this an attack on the community instead of just the school.
I had no knowledge of what happened that day until after the first period, when my biology teacher asked me if I was upset. I had no clue what he was talking about and asked why I would be. That’s when he told me about the swastikas. In a state of shock, I headed to my next class, all the while thinking about why and how I wasn’t told sooner. Usually, when something happens at our school, an administrator will make an announcement as quickly as possible on the loudspeaker. I texted my sister and my mother asking if they knew; they said they had already seen it on the news.
Attending Hillel Academy led me to believe that Judaism in America was something understood and respected by most Americans. I assumed, after learning about other religions during my elementary education, that students in non-Jewish schools felt the same way about mine. However, after my first couple months in the Binghamton public school district, I had an enlightening and somewhat mystifying experience. Most students had no clue about what Judaism really is. Most of my friends cannot tell a kippah from a dreidel, let alone understand the difference between a Reform and an Orthodox Jew.
On the other hand, many students I know are no stranger to Jewish slurs. Even people I regard as friends will tell me to “find pennies on the floor,” or that my nose isn’t a “Jewish nose.” Mostly, it’s harmless banter. We all make fun of each other and try not to take it personally, but sometimes I can’t ignore the effect these words have on me.
Words can lead to actions. It’s hard to say whether antisemitism would be as prevalent as it is today without the resurgence of antisemitic propaganda in the last couple of decades. There is a mass misconception of who Jews are, and what they represent individually and as a people. The levels of ignorance that surround the modern persecution of Jews is frightening.
For what it’s worth, if a friend says something antisemitic, I’ll say, “Be careful, you don’t really know what you’re talking about.” Many non-Jews seem to think this kind of language is funny to Jews. Surely there is something to be said for laughing at yourself, but usually this kind of joke is said without knowledge of the reality behind it. In many of these cases, these epithets are said in ignorance. Some may say this is harmless, but, in actuality, the empty meaning behind the words can make it worse: it leaves no room for compassion and only fuels the beliefs of those who base their conspiracies about Jews on misinformation.
What recent history has shown – with the growing online animosity toward Jews – is that antisemitic prejudice is mostly based on a misunderstanding of the Jewish people, and a long-standing fear of Jews rooted in religious prejudice. Slowly, Jews are returning to the scapegoat status for all American problems as they once were for many other countries. In the online world, the immigration crisis, rampant globalization and even mass shootings are often blamed on Jews.
Returning to Binghamton High School, the community’s reaction was in many ways unifying. The administration denounced hatred and the crimes of those who drew the swastikas. Other members of the Binghamton community, such as Superintendent Tonia Thompson, Broome County Executive Jason Garner and Mayor Rich David, also took a hardline stance against this bigotry. The culprits were quickly found and luckily they were not high school students.
This response might seem adequate to many; however, the schools’ actions were altogether insufficient. Before I explain why, I want to make it clear that I think Binghamton High School is an incredible place. The education I have received at BHS is of a high quality. On the other hand, the school did not handle this mess as well as it could have, and I think improvement in this regard is very much needed.
During the subsequent student government meeting, a student group of around 30 students was asked to recommend the best course of action in regard to remonstrating hate. Many agreed that writing messages of love on the sidewalk and in front of the school would be enough, but I disagreed. I advocated for an informative session covering the meaning behind the swastika, and possibly calling in a local rabbi to explain just how threatening this symbol is. To my knowledge, my suggestion was ignored, mainly because the school thought the image more dangerous than the message, so, in turn, it thought perpetuating positivity was the answer. While this may sound reasonable, it does not clarify the motivations behind the antisemitism that originally caused this episode to occur.
First, the people who decorated the swastikas on the school were likely not versed in true Nazi history. They drew the swastikas upside down, and on a school with a low-population of Jews. Was this really an attack on Jews or more of a misfire of animosity?
Second, it is my feeling that many students, and possibly administrators, do not realize the harm this symbol can inflict upon Jews. It makes us feel like targets. It makes us feel unsafe. And it makes us feel unwanted.
The truth of the matter is that if the community was not vandalized as a whole, and just the school had been targeted, we don’t know what the response would have been. The trend of schools having trouble dealing with antisemitism is being seen repeatedly. For instance, in 2018, a group of students on the boys’ water polo team at Pacifica High School in Southern California were recorded performing the Nazi salute while singing Nazi marching songs. Recently, more videos emerged revealing the same team making similar antisemitic and racist gestures. The school failed to inform or involve the community at large, and sought to hide what happened and how it dealt with it (or failed to).
Clearly, antisemitism is no aberrancy in America’s schools today. It is essential that schools know how to appropriately deal with and respond to all forms of prejudice. If schools are the vessels of knowledge for Americans, they need to teach their students about the detrimental bigotry of the past and present, while promoting the tolerance necessary to create a more inclusive society.