Diane Gensler
Hadassah Educators Council

Fighting Antisemitism in American Public Schools: A Losing Battle, Part 7

Image courtesy of the author who created the cartoon from images on on, and
Image courtesy of the author who created the cartoon from images on on, and
Image courtesy of the author.

This is the seventh and final blog of a multi-part series on fighting antisemitism in America’s public school systems.

Is it wrong to have a “hijab-wearing day” in an American public school at this point in time, asking students to wear a hijab, the conventional head covering worn by Muslim women?

A Hijab Day “event” was recently hosted by the Muslim Student Association (MSA) in a Montgomery County (Md.) public school. Surprisingly, I found Hijab Day on the Northwood High School calendar, along with Spirit Day, Twin Day and Spring Break. If this was intended to be a lighthearted, fun event, it totally missed the mark, at least for the Jewish students.

Hijab Day was not created to acquaint people with Muslim culture, as the MSA claimed. Perhaps, if it had been, there would have been food, singing and other festivities. Unfortunately, Hijab Day was another thinly veiled (pun intended) ploy to show and garner support for Hamas during the Israel-Hamas War.

The MSA claimed the hijab is not a religious symbol, but, in fact, it is. The mandate to wear a hijab is one of the fundamental religious practices of Islam. In this country, we abide by the separation of church and state, as established by the First Amendment, which is why, for example, our children do not recite prayers in school.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Since the 1960s, the federal courts have made it crystal clear that officially sponsored prayer and proselytizing is not acceptable in the school environment .…. When public school officials disregard the US Constitution’s mandate of religious neutrality, they not only violate students’ rights to remain free from government-imposed religious viewpoints, but also usurp their parents’ rights to decide and direct the religious upbringing of their children.”

As far as I am concerned, just like the all-day silent protest that Muslim students held at my children’s school (where Muslim kids sat in class all day, but did not speak), Hijab Day was inappropriate and, for the Jewish students, a form of intimidation and harassment.

Supporters of Hijab Day say it had nothing to do with the Israel-Hamas war. If so, then why did the MSA call the event Hijab Nova on its publicity poster? The Nova Music Festival in the Negev Desert was one of the sites of Hamas’ brutal attacks on October 7th  2023—the attacks which incited the war.

The members of the MSA said they simply liked the word “nova.” Were they being disingenuous or deliberately offensive? I imagine that the music festival was named Nova because it was outdoors, under the sky. What does nova have to do with wearing a hijab? (The all-day affair on school grounds reminds me of the time I was approached in my college dining hall by a religious group seeking to recruit me. Inappropriate!)

Nobody is denying anyone the right to wear a hijab. As a Jew, I am not knocking modesty or Muslim beliefs, but Jewish people don’t go around asking non-Jews to don a tallit (prayer shawl). Especially now that Israel and Hamas are at war, asking all the students to wear a hijab is an anti-Zionist, antisemitic statement in support of the Hamas terrorists. The MSA may as well have waved the Palestinian flag.

Further disappointing to me was that school staff participated—they donned hijabs and took photos of each other. This is another example of school staff making poor decisions that can influence our children. Would Mormon parents want their children to put on a hijab, take a photograph and post it on social media knowing that some people might misinterpret the photograph as meaning that these kids don’t respect their own religion and support the Palestinian cause?

Do we want our children to go along mindlessly with what someone else tells them to do? Isn’t the idea of education to raise children who become independent thinkers and not mindless followers? The Nazi regime started with many people blindly following Hitler without thinking for themselves.

Unfortunately, it appears as if the Montgomery Public School System, once considered to be a top school system in this country, is now a bastion of unchecked antisemitism. Though in the scheme of things Hijab Day may be one of the milder antisemitic infractions, once again, the MSA managed to trample on the rights of non-Muslim students to attend school in a safe, unintimidating environment. Allowing Hijab Day is yet another example of the school administrators’ insensitivity.

Author’s Note: According to CBS News, since 2022, there has been a 98 percent rise in antisemitic incidents in Maryland, one of 31 states without Holocaust Education legislation. Currently, there are Holocaust Education bills languishing in both Maryland’s House and Senate. Hadassah has been leading a national fight against antisemitism and Hadassah Advocacy can connect you to your local, regional and/or national representatives so that you can enlist their support for this important legislation. Please check out “The ABC’s of Holocaust Education” in the most recent issue of Hadassah Magazine.

About the Author
Diane Gensler is a Life Member of Hadassah Baltimore, a member of the Hadassah Educators Council and the Hadassah Writers' Circle, and a lay leader in her synagogue. She is the author of Forgive Us Our Trespasses: A Memoir of a Jewish Teacher in a Catholic School (Apprentice House Press, 2020) and occasionally writes articles for organizations of which she is a member, such as the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. She is a certified English and special education teacher. In addition to teaching in public and private schools, she developed educational software, tutored online and wrote and managed online curriculum. She is a Maryland Writing Project Teacher Consultant and a mentor. A native Baltimorean and mother of three, she leads the Baltimore Jewish Writers Guild and holds volunteer positions in her children’s schools and activities.
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