While in a waiting room the other day, I watched as local news scrolled across the TV: snow, Thanksgiving shopping woes and, oh yes, more swastika graffiti, this time at Beechwood Knoll Elementary School in Quincy. The graffiti was three feet tall and temporarily covered in black paint. Again the assurances that the community itself was inclusive; again the assurances that perpetrators would be brought to justice. All well-meaning, all said in earnest. But, again?
It’s like antisemitism whack-a-mole: Similar incidents have happened at schools in Newton, Needham, Arlington, on and on. Hate exists all around us. It’s perpetrated in secret and left visible for all to see, for all to fear. It’s hard to believe assurances about inclusion and welcoming natures and justice and all those nice words when this just keeps happening. When I saw the news, I felt numbness more than rage. “Here we go again,” I thought. Any instinct to act was dampened by a far worse reflex: hopelessness.
In this climate, it’s easy to become inured to this kind of hideousness. To paint over the ugliness and move along. But we can’t. We have to act as though every time is the worst time, that every incident is disgusting, to resist complacency. I talked to The Rashi School middle school dean Joni Fishman and ADL New England senior associate regional director Peggy Shukur about how to do this, especially with kids, as incidents become more prevalent.
“Some call antisemitism the oldest form of hatred. At the ADL, we received reports of 144 antisemitic incidents in Massachusetts in 58 towns last year,” Shukur says. “It’s something that feels more frequent judging by the types of incidents we’re getting, and it demands that parents have conversations with children.” (If you have experienced or witnessed an incident of bias, hatred or bigotry, you can report it here.)
Use the ADL’s Good Fight toolkit.
This is a 30-page, easy-to-read primer on antisemitism. What is it? Why does it exist? How do we fight it while also protecting our own safety? For so many, antisemitism just is. It’s something that has existed for all time. But why? What are the origins?
The toolkit explains: “Systemic antisemitism has existed since ancient times, originating as religious intolerance after Christianity became the central religious, cultural and political force in medieval Europe. Following the development of ‘scientific’ explanations for race, Jews were seen as a biologically inferior and distinct group, oftentimes a justification for isolation and expulsion. Central to antisemitism is the myth that Jews are to blame for society’s problems.” The free download offers a helpful grounding framework; it’s a comprehensive resource on how to respond to hate—ways to talk to your children about what they might see and hear, how to press peers if they make antisemitic comments and how to report incidents. Read it.
Explain what a swastika is. Whenever possible, teach.
In this era, the symbol is notorious, but what does it truly mean? As more and more Holocaust survivors die off, the chilling significance of the symbol as the emblem of the Nazi party can lose its meaning, recognized merely as an easy means to instill fear.
“People have chosen a symbol that’s widely recognized as one of the most notorious hate symbols in Western culture, whether they know details about the Holocaust or not,” Shukur says. Some kids might even doodle it, not knowing what it is. Tell them. Says Fishman: “When I once asked a young person, ‘What does a swastika mean to you?’ they responded, ‘Well, it’s one of those things you see, and it’s not so nice.’ Not so nice!” Some people truly might not understand the true weight of the symbol. As we move further and further from the Holocaust, she says, we need to educate whenever we can.
Remind your children that the power of words and the power of actions matter.
We’re inundated with news around the clock; we can fire off tweets and reduce sentiments to hashtags. It’s easy to simply say, “Just kidding! I didn’t realize!” Fishman says. But even now, especially now, words still matter. Conversations still matter. Talk to your children. Ask them, “What have you seen in the news? What are you thinking about? What are you worried about?” she says. The delivery mechanisms for information might have changed, but the human capacity to make sense of it all hasn’t evolved along with it. Pause to check in with your kids.
Yes, we live in a scary world. Antisemitism is frightening, but so is climate change and gun violence. These issues all weigh on students, Fishman says. Safety has become a commodity. She recently took a group of sixth graders on a field trip, and one student was reluctant to go. “Do you think it will be OK? What if they don’t like Jewish people?” he asked. Fishman explained the security measures in place; she’s also explained to students why they hold safety drills at school. “There can’t be secrets,” she says. Instead, it’s important to give kids tools to understand their world and the measures in place that responsible adults take to keep them safe.
If your children come home scared, “You can always listen,” says Fishman. “Say, ‘Tell me what’s on your mind. Is there anything specific you’d like me to do?’ Don’t jump into, ‘I’m going to fix this,’ but offer tools to help them feel safer,” whether that’s explaining safety measures their school has taken or helping them to understand where hate and bias come from in the first place, so it’s less sinisterly mysterious.
Look for the good.
For every hateful incident, many more positive things happen every day. We can’t pretend that antisemitism doesn’t exist, but we can choose to praise and focus on the wonderful. Volunteer with your kids. Engage them in the helpful; expose them to the world of the good. Empower them. Action—positive action—is the antidote to fear.