How to Teach Young People About Antisemitism

This text discusses the lack of Holocaust education in K-12 schools and how this contributes to the spread of antisemitism.

In the wake of an alarming increase in hate crimes in America, there has been a rise in antisemitism (hostility or discrimination directed at Jewish people) and antisemitic acts. Teachers can help students understand antisemitism and make sense of the events in their locality.

What is Antisemitism?

Jonah Boyarin is the New York City Commission on Human Rights' liaison to Jewish communities. He facilitates antisemitism workshops for educators and students. He explains that antisemitism can be described as "being based upon two lies about Jewish people" in the training program of the organization.

He says that the first set of lies is what we call common stories about Jewish people or conspiracy theories. They falsely imagine Jewish people in control of the media, banks, and the economy. The second is a series of dehumanizing lies about Jewish people that claim that Jewish people are not welcome here. They are not like us and cannot be trusted.

He says that these lies work together because you are more likely to believe a conspiratorial story about a group than if you think they are just ordinary people.

Schools can teach antisemitism by including lessons on the history and definition of antisemitism as well as contemporary examples and how to intervene.

Why should schools teach antisemitism to students?

Teachers must be ready to teach students about current events and history, given the rise in antisemitic incidents. For example, after the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, where a gunman posted antisemitic comments online and killed 11 people, and injured six others during services, students had many questions that educators needed to address. Nick Haberman is the founder of LIGHT Education Initiative, which provides education in human rights to schools. "Why did the Holocaust occur?" Haberman speaks out about students' questions. It's "Why did someone set up a synagogue?" Is this what is going on?

Peter Strand is, like Haberman, a former U.S. teaching fellow. Holocaust Memorial Museum says he was confronted by a flood of questions from fifth graders at Irving Elementary school in Bozeman, Montana after neo Nazis had fliers distributed to his community.

Antisemitism education is a key component in making schools safe and inclusive for all students. Haberman says that any form of discrimination or marginalization or identity-based violence is harmful to your school district. It's also detrimental to the learning environment.

It is possible to connect antisemitism conversations with larger ideas about systemic inequalities and prejudice. Noah Schoen, an antisemitism educator, co-founder of Meanings of October 27, an oral history project on the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, says, 'When you look at the history of Antisemitism it is a history of people accusing Jews of problems. "I believe the conversation about antisemitism can be a valuable starting point for a discussion about blame and responsibility in society. We want young people to accept responsibility for the problems they face and not to blame others.

Boyarin emphasizes the importance of equipping students with critical thinking skills to understand the historical, socio-political, and economic conditions that created the society we live in today. He says this enables students to understand the causes of inequality.

Use Stories to Teach Antisemitism

Experts agree that educators must have a deep understanding of antisemitism before they can teach it. Strand and Haberman both recommend following the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust. They say they are equally applicable to other topics as well as antisemitism education.

Experts say literature and real-life stories are powerful tools. Schoen states that stories are very important. The stories of Holocaust survivors are one of the best ways Jews have educated non Jews about antisemitism. This is what actually happened. This is the history. But... survivors say, "This is my story."

Boyarin emphasizes the importance of telling diverse stories from the Jewish Community to counter stereotypes. He says that there is more than one way to be a Jewish person. "Jewish people can look and be seen in many different ways. They are our neighbors."

What Should Students Learn About Antisemitism

Experts believe that many people mistakenly associate antisemitism education and conversations about graphic violence. It is possible to start conversations about antisemitism from an early age.

Schoen states that a major principle of Holocaust education is to "gently in, gently out". Schoen says that Holocaust education is at its cutting edge today because it presents the content in a trauma-informed way so students can understand it.

Talking about antisemitism with students younger than 18 is a great idea. Youth radicalization is a powerful driver of the internet and social media. Haberman states that pre-adolescence is the best time to stop youth radicalization, extremism, and hatred from growing.

Parents and teachers can search for age-appropriate resources such as this guide by the USC Shoah Foundation, in partnership with Nickelodeon.

For young children, educators may use read-alouds in order to introduce them to Jewish stories and spark discussions about inclusion. Haberman states that educators can also teach more general social-emotional skills to help children learn about compassion, kindness, love, tolerance and empathy.

Upper elementary school students can have conversations that provide more historical context and detail. They can also talk about how to be a role model and intervene when someone has been bullied or attacked. Students can also learn more about antisemitism, the Holocaust, and other sensitive topics in middle school. It does not mean that students should display disturbing content in class. Haberman emphasizes that "the best Holocaust education I have ever seen" does not include any graphic content.

What are the challenges?

Teaching antisemitism is difficult because of its structural nature. Teachers are being pressured to help students overcome learning gaps caused by the pandemic. They have also been confronted with a hostile political climate in many of their states, including Republican-led bans on class discussions about race and inequality.

Strand says that a lot of people are feeling the pressure to do the right thing because they don’t want to be (attacked).

A structural problem is the absence of funding and support for civic education and social studies. According to the civics education initiative Educating for American Democracy, the U.S. spends approximately five cents per student annually on civic education. This is a mere 1% of the total STEM education spending per year.

According to the Holocaust Memorial Museum at least 20 states need some Holocaust education. This can be anything from providing Holocaust Remembrance Week information to suggesting readings. Students learn about the Holocaust through secondary social studies courses. Most curricula don't require students to learn more about antisemitism.

Many educators are not prepared for antisemitism discussions. Haberman states, "I didn't know that antisemitism doesn't begin and end with Hitler." Haberman says, "I didn't realize that antisemitism wasn't just about Hitler. There were thousands of years of antisemitism and all these stages and eras. Contemporary antisemitism has become a serious problem."

Strand says that teaching antisemitism is despite these difficulties, 'the most rewarding work'.

Schoen states, "One of the things that I learned from my study of the history and antisemitism was that it is not only the actions of Jews that make the difference between antisemitic sentiments turning into a disaster or being avoided." Schoen says that while antisemitism may exist and may be allowed to flourish, it is not permitted to thrive when other non-Jews speak out against it.

Explore the Top 2022 STEM High Schools

View all 29 Slides