In a storm of anti-Semitism, listen carefully, be prepared

Anti-Semitism has often been referred to as the “canary in the coal mine” — a barometer of social, economic and political unease and anxiety. When times are tough, Jews are blamed — and this scapegoating is a warning that things are bound to get worse for any of us who are identified as “other” in our society.

More than at any other time in recent history, we find ourselves in the coal mine. The tensions and outright bigotry flamed by the recent Bernard Madoff scandal, the international financial meltdown and the crisis in Gaza are all issues that have created real hardships and tragedies.

Instead of introspection and thoughtful debate, many are looking for someone to blame.

Recent events may be creating a perfect storm for the flourishing of anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions, particularly in our schools. In our communities, we are hearing Israel, Israelis and Jews being referred to as terrorists, killers and Nazis. Signs at protests read “Smash the Jewish state” and “Every Zionazi is a legitimate target.”

Children and youth are not impervious to this anti-Jewish hate. They may be facing anti-Semitism and might be left feeling isolated and unsure in the very places where we trust that they will feel protected.

As someone who works with teachers, students and parents, I know that students are often asked to talk on behalf of their religious, ethnic and national groups. I know that as a child, I was ill-equipped to speak on behalf of the world’s Jews — yet that is often what happened.

Worse still, students are asked to defend and explain the actions and policies of people and countries with whom they identify. Discussions about current events are vital to have with young people, but teachers and adults need to be aware that of the awkward position that this may pose for certain students.

Young people should not be expected to act as delegates or spokespeople of their communities. Post-9/11, we heard, from students and teachers, about Arab-American and Muslim students being asked “Why do they hate us so much?”

These classroom discussions often led to jokes, slurs and name-calling between students. The Anti-Defamation League worked with school communities to ensure that members of the community were not targets of xenophobia and fear. Young people were being blamed and marginalized due to their identity.

I think that it is time to prick up our ears and listen more carefully for anti-Semitism now. At our office, we are aware that Jewish students have been targets at school because of events well outside of their realm: the Iraq War, the attacks on Sept. 11 and the conflict in the Middle East.

Hateful words that have gone unchallenged have often escalated to stronger words, and sometimes, to violence. I have heard from parents in the Bay Area whose young daughter was told, “All Jews should have been thrown in the ovens, including you.” The teacher responded by telling the parent that her daughter was “too sensitive.”

A teacher from a school on the Peninsula called the ADL to report that one of her first-graders had told another child, “I don’t want to play with you. You killed all of the Palestinians.”

At an East Bay high school, anti-Semitic posters — including one that read, “Kill all Jews!” — hung in a high school cafeteria in plain sight of students and adults. This prompted a heated argument between a Jewish student and the creators of the hateful posters, which led to a brawl.

It is time for us to get prepared to respond to the  increasing anti-Semitism that our children might face. As parents, educators and community members, we can all vow to stand up against hate.

Despite our differences, we can engage in civilized discourse, even heated debates, but no child should be made to feel isolated and marginalized at school. Students are especially vulnerable to labels and language; as adults, it is our job to ensure that our words maintain a safe environment where every child can succeed and thrive. Here are a few suggestions:

• Discuss prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism with your children. What can children and young people do to address prejudice and hate? Are there ways that adults can support them?

• Be alert for signs of distress. Are your children afraid to go to school? Are they hearing anti-Semitic or racist remarks? If so, discuss it with them and with the teachers and administrators at school. Investigate what steps can be taken to ensure they feel safe and secure at school.

n Teach your children about the history of anti-Semitism. By providing them with some basic historical facts, they can refute myths and rumors that they hear. For more information, visit


• For older children, give them the tools to speak about Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Acknowledge the complexities and tragedies on both sides. For more information about specific responses, visit

• The sovereign State of Israel and its government can be legitimately criticized just like any other country or government in the world. Criticism of particular Israeli actions or policies in and of itself does not constitute anti-Semitism. However, it is undeniable that there is criticism of Israel or of Zionism that crosses the line into anti-Semitism.

When age-old stereotypes of Jews are invoked to criticize Israel (including images of Jewish greed, traitorousness and world domination), one can point out these myths about Jews — that have been circulating since the Middle Ages — should be off limits.

Make the distinction between the policies of the Israeli government and the Jewish people. Calling all Jews bloodthirsty killers is simple and unacceptable anti-Semitism.

Nina Simone Grotch is the education director at the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].