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Anti-Semitism is creeping back into our schools: What should we do about it?

Anti-Semitism is creeping back into our schools: What should we do about it?
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In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October, anti-Semitism is being manifested in new ways with disturbing permutations — from the halls of Congress to the hallways of our public schools.

Perhaps nowhere has this been more evident than in our schools. In just the past few months there have been a number of disturbing incidents across the country involving students making “Heil Hitler” salutes and sharing photos of homemade swastikas on social media. It’s even sparked a controversy at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, when swastikas unexpectedly appeared in an interactive presentation during a student-led assembly. And these come in the wake of the now infamous incident in Baraboo, Wisconsin, last November, when a shocking photo surfaced of at least 60 high school boys making Nazi salutes on the steps of a local courthouse before their high school junior prom. Baraboo should have served as a stark warning to students considering similar behavior.

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But just in the past few weeks incidents involving anti-Semitic imagery and words are once again roiling privileged communities on both coasts. In California, a group of Orange County teenagers at a house party posted a photo of a swastika made of red plastic cups on Snapchat. Before the night was out, a dozen or so teenagers had crowded around the display to pose for photos, their arms raised in the stiff-armed Nazi salute.

Meanwhile in Long Island, New York, two seniors in the Levittown Schools allegedly posted onto a social media page set up by members of the senior class an image of the district’s website containing an anti-Semitic message.

And in the Pacific Northwest, two Mercer Island high school students found themselves the subject of a school investigation after they were photographed giving the Nazi salute. According to district officials, the photos, while taken off campus, were widely shared with other students on Snapchat and Instagram.

The fact that schoolchildren are now picking up anti-Semitic memes and using Snapchat to share Nazi salutes shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. After all, schools are a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger society. Racists, emboldened since Charlottesville, have been targeting the next generation and finding new ways to spread hate. The more hateful speech becomes common, the more children are parroting what they hear and see around them.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism in schools isn’t a uniquely new problem. The data reflects this: In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools increased by an astounding 94 percent after nearly doubling the year prior. Elementary, middle and high schools exceeded public spaces as the locations with the most anti-Semitic incidents, surpassing homes, businesses and even Jewish institutions.

So, what can be done about it?

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First, the students involved here are either ignorant to, or have a lack of understanding of, the history of the Holocaust. This is why the Anti-Defamation League strongly supports the passage of legislation both at the state and federal level that would ensure the Holocaust is taught consistently and appropriately in schools. To date, only 11 states across the country currently have laws mandating Holocaust education, and those laws are inconsistently applied. A federal bill now under consideration will hopefully close those gaps.

Second, we need to reach more schools with effective anti-bias education. At ADL we have been helping schools fight hate and bias since the 1950s, but recently there has been a significant rise in demand for our resources. We know that anti-bias education works to help empower students to challenge bias and identity-based bullying. Having more students who can act as allies will foster safe and equitable schools for all.

Third, there’s more that needs to be done in our schools to help teach students the life skills necessary for navigating our increasingly diverse society. Students model what they see from adults. That’s why it is so important for all people to identify anti-Semitism for what it is and to speak out loudly and clearly against hate in all forms. Everyone – from members of Congress to principals, teachers and parents – can play a role.

The Holocaust started with words. Those hateful words escalated into actions. If we want to send a different message and model to the next generation, we need to start with words, too. But these need to be words of empathy and empowerment, and our students need to be listening.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.