Rising Antisemitism at School: Who is Responsible?

Antisemitism at public and private schools is on the rise. This week, an antisemitic incident took place at a well established private school in Toronto. In the school’s words, “a student in grade 7 returned to his locker at the end of the day to find it vandalized with antisemitic symbols and messaging.”

Some weeks prior, we received notification from a Jewish parent at a different private school. Apparently, her child confronted peers in her classroom who drew a swastika on their hands and proudly displayed it to the class. In another case, students proudly remarked “Heil Hitler” and boasted about joining a hate group in the future.

Some have dismissed these incidents as “child’s play” or ignorant bullying at worst. Often, schools themselves keep incidents internal – to avoid a “public relations nightmare.” But antisemitism and systematic racism is an illness. The road to recovery starts with admitting there is a problem in the first place and then addressing it aggressively.

The problem is often blamed on the home. The school may be to blame for not implementing counter antisemitism and anti-racism educational programs and responses. This is especially true in elementary and junior high school grades, where students are still managed and curriculum implemented. In reality, there are multiple agents in a child’s life which have a compounding impact to energize the racist ideology. Some, but not all of these push-factors include:

  1. Digital Technologies: Antisemitism has proliferated beyond statistical comprehension on social media and the Internet. According to the World Jewish Congress, an antisemitic post is uploaded to social media every 83 seconds; and more than 382,000 antisemitic posts were uploaded to social media in 2016. Whereas in the 1980s, white supremacists scotch taped flyers in front of schools with limited penetration. Today, online antisemitism is pervasive from white supremacists to Islamists to anti-Israel university propagandists.
  1. Institutionalized Antisemitism: Institutions are diffusing antisemitism into society through anti-Israel (anti-Jewish) campaigns. Through boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns, they seek to isolate and marginalize the Jewish people. In effect, they seek to “criminalize” the Jewish state and by extension, the Jewish people, through a “social justice lens” that is penetrating universities, unions and now political parties. It penetrates into classrooms through educational narratives, sometimes of “equity” and sometimes by individual teachers or students themselves.
  1. Holocaust Denial: Misinformation about the Holocaust spreads through the media people of influence. Just this week, it was found that Marine Le Pen’s replacement as National Front Leader, Jean-Francois Jalkh, questioned the use of Zyklone B in the Holocaust. Repeating an old Holocaust denial trope according to reports he said, “personally, I think that it is impossible from a technical point of view to use [Zyklon B] for mass extermination” (JTA). Several weeks before, White House press secretary Sean Spicer erroneously stated, “Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” in reference to Syrian President Bashaar al-Assads’ usage of chemical weapons.

The solution to the rising tide of antisemitism in our schools is more Holocaust education that is continuous and includes a component about antisemitism. A counter antisemitism program, however, cannot end with the Holocaust. It must include contemporary forms of the new antisemitism involving a thorough understanding of the campaigns manifesting in universities, unions, political movements, the media and even international bodies like the United Nations.

And thus, the responsibility to educate students is a combination of home, school, community and country. As Simon Wiesenthal said, “the schools would fail through their silence, the Church through its forgiveness and the home through the denial and silence of the parents. The new generation has to hear what the older generation refuses to tell it.” Although we have been taught the opposite and in some cases it may apply – what Simon Wiesenthal in fact is saying is that – silence is not golden!


About the Author
Avi Benlolo is the former President and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), a Jewish non-profit human rights organization. Avi is a prominent Canadian human rights activist dedicated to promoting tolerance, freedom, democracy and human rights.