Diane Gensler
Hadassah Educators Council

Fighting antisemitism in American public schools: A losing battle, part 1

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

This is Part One of a multi-part series by the author on fighting antisemitism in America’s public school systems.

Against the horrifying backdrop of the war in Israel, it is especially concerning that antisemitism and anti-Zionism have rampantly infiltrated our schools — not only college campuses, but also elementary, middle and high schools — the institutions where our youngest, most innocent and most vulnerable kids spend the majority of their time.

We’ve had numerous incidents this past year in my own children’s magnet public high school in the state of Maryland. Magnet schools are considered “special,” yet, they face the same problems.

One of the most notable offensive events to date was the Muslim Student Association (MSA)’s silent protest. In the past, these students have chanted “Palestine from the river to the sea” and “Free Palestine.” When I found out that the MSA was planning to hold a day-long protest in school, I talked to an assistant principal in person and reported back to the Jewish parents who were also concerned. The assistant principal assured me there was nothing to worry about as it was a silent protest, which meant the students would be sitting in classes all day — just not speaking.

“We can’t force them to speak,” she explained. The teacher in me thought, “But you can do other things!”

The assistant principal said that the staff and faculty would be keeping a close eye. I expressed my anxiety that protests often turn antisemitic and, sometimes, violent. She wasn’t concerned. However, I couldn’t sleep the entire night before. Around 2 am, I emailed the school superintendent and two other administrators.

I didn’t understand how it was ok to allow a student protest on school property during the school day. Couldn’t they protest off school premises? Was any group allowed to protest on school grounds? Apparently, it was within the MSA’s rights to sit in classrooms the entire day, dressed in Palestinian garb, wearing keffiyehs, with watermelon stamps on their hands, not uttering a word. (I later learned that if the teacher called on them, they had to answer.)

In my email, I brought out that if the keffiyehs covered their faces, this was against school policy since masking is prohibited. The image of the anti-bullying/harassment form that is sent home several times a year entered my consciousness.

The day after the protest, I received a reply, which read:

Good afternoon,
Thank you for your message. Executive Directors in the Department of Schools work collaboratively with principals to ensure [school district] Policies and Superintendent’s Rules are followed by students and staff. Today, [Name], Executive Director, High Schools, provided guidance and support to [Name], principal of [School], in collaboration with our Department of School Safety. [Name] reported that the instructional day was not interrupted.
Thank you for your continued support of [School District].

Thank you,
Chief of Schools

It seems as though the MSA students had found a loophole in the system and were able to “make a statement” while working within the confines of the school rules.

I wondered if the parents of the MSA students condoned or encouraged this protest. If my child wanted to hold a pro-Israel protest during the school day, draped in an Israeli flag, I would have told my child that the classroom is a place for learning and that there are other times for protests — for example, during the school’s “flexible” time in the middle of the day, which is typically set aside for study time, tutoring, club meetings, etc.

Did the school teachers or staff suggest an alternative means of protest to these children? It sounds as if they simply said, “Well, if it doesn’t interfere with the school day, you can do what you want.”

Is the most important thing that “the instructional day was not interrupted”?   After all, guest speakers, field trips and other programs interrupt the school day all the time. I say the school day should be interrupted to discuss such a controversial issue students are obviously passionate about. Maybe everyone could learn something.

Thankfully, the protest was peaceful. I wonder if the silent protestors felt “heard.”

Author’s Note: In Part Two of my blog post, I will continue my exploration of rising antisemitism in the United States’ public school system. 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. 

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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