Fighting anti-Semitism where it starts

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FBI Director Christopher Wray recently acknowledged “that the Jewish community in particular has suffered violence and faces very real threats from really across the hate spectrum.”

Tragically, each week brings further examples of that hate Wray referenced. During one seven-day period in February, Massachusetts School superintendent John Buckey reported that anti-Semitic taunts and swastikas were found in elementary school bathrooms as well as a middle school in another part of the state, while three different South Carolina schools experienced anti-Semitic incidents. In New York, home of the nation’s largest Jewish community, a Jewish school bus carrying children, was attacked by a man who used his car to block the bus and then got out and smashed the bus windshield.

Fighting skyrocketing anti-Semitism in K-12 schools requires mobilizing federal, state, and local government resources to combat this scourge, and a critical component, and one that is particularly timely right now, is for the U.S. Department of Education to expand its Civil Rights Data Collection.

Data-gathering must cover religious bias more extensively, and it should specifically identify which religious group is being targeted. This is important because you can’t solve a problem unless you know what the problem is. Schools, local educational authorities and the federal government need this valuable and specific information. They need to understand precisely which religious groups are being victimized and which specific hate crimes students face to know how to effectively reverse the trend in religious harassment. The FBI takes the same approach to hate crime reporting. Now, with religious crime in schools on the rise, we must apply the same standards. As Brandeis Center Chair as well as former Assistant Secretary of Education Kenneth L. Marcus, said “The appalling number of religious offenses underscores how essential this data is.”

The Department should also require the same amount of information pertaining to religious discrimination, bias, harassment and bullying as it does with respect to other bias categories such as race or LGBTI issues, demonstrating clearly the seriousness with which it views the problem.          

These changes will not only benefit K-12 students but will improve the dire situation facing Jewish students on college campuses. By the time students have entered college, they have absorbed copious amounts of information from home, school, and social media, for good or for ill. Often the college students who harass or bully other college students harassed or bullied their peers during their K-12 years.

A 2021 Brandeis Center survey of college students who openly identified as Jewish found that over half the respondents had been personally targeted by an anti-Semitic remark in the past 120 days, over 60 percent of respondents said that they had felt unsafe as Jews on campus, and one out of six students feared actual physical attacks. An August 2021 survey from the Alums for Campus Fairness organization recorded virtually identical data. As U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Andrea Lucas recently observed, the Brandeis Center and other reports revealed “horrifying statistics [on Anti-Semitism.] And even worse, to some degree is that the general public does not seem to be aware of these concerns, or at least at the same level that American Jews do.”

And just as K-12 anti-Semitism affects the college campus, what happens on college campuses impacts K-12 education. Universities train the teachers, doctors, and mental health counselors of tomorrow. It is therefore alarming that a graduate student in Brooklyn College’s Mental Health Masters’ Program felt free to respond to a Jewish student’s concerns about anti-Semitism by saying “I would like to strangle that —-ho,” and then faces no repercussions.

The FBI reported that in 2020, hate crimes increased by nearly nine percent. And while Jews make up a mere two percent of the U.S. population, they were the targets of 54.9 percent of all religious hate crimes. We live in an era where anti-Semitism has made an ugly comeback, reaching levels not seen for decades. It must be combatted in schools, where it too often begins. We cannot afford to waste this opportunity.

Kunz is the scholar in residence for the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a non-profit that works to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and promote justice for all.

Tags Antisemitism Christopher Wray Department of Education

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