When most people think about anti-Semitism, their minds automatically go to pre-war Germany and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. But anti-Semitism has strong roots in America, and is currently experiencing a drastic rise. 60 percent of hate crime attacks were targeted against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2018. In 2018, anti-Semitic attacks killed more Jews around the globe than in any year in decades. And anti-Semitism in the US is on the track to reach record high numbers. In NY, LA and Chicago, anti-Semitic attacks are at an 18 year peak.
Yet despite the horrifying statistics, only 12 states in the US (CA, CT, FL, IL, IN, KY, MI, NJ, NY, OR in 2020, RI and VA) require any study of the Holocaust at all in secondary schools. As educators, what can we do about this? How can we focus our attention to the current rise of anti-semitism and its connection to the past? Many educators teach about the Holocaust through YA books, yet do not mention anti-Semitism today. I challenge those teachers to connect the novels to the world their students inhabit now, while also giving homage to Holocaust survivors and the past.
First, educators will need to define anti-Semitism for their students. What is anti-Semitism and how can it be identified? According to Teaching Tolerance, “Anti-Semitism can take many forms: religiously based discrimination, targeting Jews for their religious beliefs; politically driven hatred or discrimination, targeting Jews regarding political issues; ethnically or culturally based hostility, targeting Jews regarding heritage or culture; and the perpetuation of stereotypes based on economic or other factors, tied to bigoted images of Jews being “greedy,” for example. Anti-Semitism employs venom, power and prejudice similar to racism and other forms of bigotry.” Holocaust denial, (denying that the Holocaust took place or minimizing its actual impact) is another form of anti-Semitism.
Start with essential questions about stereotypes and labels. Define stereotypes. Ask students to identify stereotypes they see being used in their schools and communities. Ask how stereotypes are used to divide people. What are the benefits of living in a diverse society? How can we make connections with people who are different than ourselves? Be brave and have hard and honest conversations.
To address holocaust denial, use primary sources. Many of the Holocaust survivors have now passed away but their stories remain. Others are still living. Read and discuss the stories of survivors:
The Museum of Jewish Heritage has 4,000 audio and video testimonies by Holocaust survivors, liberators, rescuers, Jews who served in the Allied Armies during World War II
New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage has a thorough Holocaust curriculum for secondary educators
If and when hate crimes happen in your school, address them immediately, firmly, and include the community. Teaching Tolerance has a detailed guide, Responding to Hate at School, that should be required reading for all administration and teachers. Be ready to respond when bias occurs. If a student draws a swastika, it is a doorway for everyone to learn more. I challenge teachers to open that door, instead of erasing the symbol, leaving no avenue for education. Use bias as a chance to teach and grow as a community, and bring resources into your classrooms and schools. Teach your students to be activists and leaders by educating them to call out and fight anti-Semitism where and when they see it.