Students today may not think they're confronting anti-Semitism, but scratch the surface and what you find might surprise you. How are they coping?
Ben Miller-Sobel, a ninth grader at Abington High School and a student at the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, says he’s been fortunate never to have experienced anti-Semitism.
Unless you count the time pennies were thrown at his friends in the lunchroom or when he opened up a school textbook and found swastikas drawn inside. Then there was the comment from a classmate who said he had heard Miller-Sobel’s grandmother “screaming in the ovens,” which was clearly a reference to the Shoah.
“I never expected to ever hear that in my life. I went to a private Jewish day school,” the graduate of the Perelman Jewish Day School said during a March 10 program jointly organized by the Gratz high school and the Anti-Defamation League.
The program, attended by more than 125 students, and held at the National Museum of American Jewish History, focused on the past, present and future of anti-Semitism.
It was one of the primary local events organized this year in concert with the 100th anniversary of the ADL, the nonprofit group best known for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, but which is also devoted to eradicating prejudice and intolerance in all forms.
Regarding the comment his classmate made about the Shoah, Miller-Sobel said he “didn’t know how to respond to it. I told him that that was one of the worst things that have happened in Jewish history and it should never be made a joke.”
According to Randi Boyette, associate regional director in charge of education for ADL, it is not uncommon for young people, even those like Miller-Sobel who might challenge expressions of intolerance, to back away from labeling something they have witnessed or experienced as anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is a term that was coined in the late 19th century and has come to mean the modern form of Jew hatred in which the Jewish people are singled out as much for being a race or ethnicity as for following a set of laws or religious practices.
Boyette, who led the students in a workshop, offered a variety of possible explanations for this hesitance, including that kids just don’t want to internalize something negative. Others think of anti-Semitism as something their parents or grandparents had to deal with and consider what they might hear or see from classmates as poor attempts at humor, rather than something malicious.
When Boyette leads workshops for Jewish youth, her goal, she said, isn’t to scare the kids or leave them thinking that anti-Semitism defines the modern Jewish experience.
“I wanted kids to walk away and think about it, I wanted them to have conversations with each other,” she said.
Much has changed regarding attitudes about anti-Semitism in the 100 years since the ADL was founded in a Chicago law office, in response to the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory supervisor who was convicted of a murder and later lynched by an anti-Semitic mob in Atlanta.
Back then, Eastern European Jewish immigrants were still making their way to the United States at a time when nativist sentiment was on the rise.
Public anti-Semitism in this country reached its peak in the 1930s, when colleges openly restricted the number of Jewish students, some Americans admired the Nazis, and anti-Semitic voices, like Henry Ford’s, reached a wide audience through newspapers and radio.In the decades after the war, discrimination against Jews in law firms, social clubs and elsewhere persisted, but blatant expressions of anti-Semitism declined.
Today, despite the persistence of anti-Semitic incidents, the expression of anti-Semitism has become much more socially unacceptable, to the degree that many might think it has all but disappeared. That’s a huge mistake, according to Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who has served as ADL’s national director since 1987.
Foxman said that his organization’s polling data shows that about 15 percent of Americans harbor at least some anti-Semitic sentiments. That’s far below the 50 percent to 70 percent found in parts of Europe and Latin America — ADL doesn’t have anything close to reliable data on the Middle East — but it’s nothing to discount, Foxman said.
The last ADL audit reported 1,080 anti-Semitic incidents nationwide for 2011, a 13 percent decrease from the prior year. ADL officials said the reporting methods have changed dramatically over the more than 20 years the ADL has been doing the audit, so it’s hard to conclude anything about long-term trends.
“I came to the ADL almost 50 years ago and I was certain that anti-Semitism would be a historical fact of the past,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I think what is continuously shocking to me is to what extent anti-Semitism is a current event, to what extent it is still virulent.”
Over the years, some have criticized ADL for trying to keep itself in business by playing up anti-Semitic threats, when assimilation and lack of affiliation are seen as the greater threats facing Jews.
Foxman said his group is not really celebrating it’s 100th birthday. It would be much better, he said, if there were no longer a need for the ADL.
“We know we have conquered space, we’ve eradicated small pox and polio, we have transplanted the heart — we have done a lot of things,” he said. “But we still haven’t found that antidote and vaccine” for anti-Semitism and prejudice.
Foxman also said the Internet has changed many of the rules and given new life to old hatreds.
“The communication revolution is wonderful,” said Foxman, “but it has a dark underbelly.”
Along with monitoring anti-Semitic incidents throughout the region, educating youth is one of the primacy functions of the ADL’s Philadelphia office, which opened in 1949, and the group’s other 27 offices nationwide.
Some of its programs, such as “Confronting Anti-Semitism” and “Bearing Witness,” focus specifically on combating hatred of Jews and conducting education on the Holocaust. The former program — which included the recent Gratz event — concentrates on teaching Jewish youth while the latter works with Catholic school educators.
“No Place for Hate,” which is perhaps the ADL’s best known local program, is about fighting prejudice of all kinds. The program has now been incorporated into 225 local schools, organizations and municipalities. The idea is that participating institutions work proactively to create an environment that is free from bullying and prejudice, even if it’s an ideal that can’t ever be completely achieved.
The ADL has always tried to balance two goals: fighting a particular form of prejudice directed at Jews and pushing back against prejudice and bullying in general, according to Barry Morrison, who has spent 28 years as ADL’s regional director and a total of 35 years with the organization.
“Early in my career, somebody introduced me to the term ‘enlightened self-interest.’ What we do is, we help ourselves by helping others,” said Morrison, meaning that the more education there is about the ills of hatred, the more people will think twice about engaging in anti-Semitic behavior. At the same time, he said, the ADL speaks out against racism, sexism, homophobia and other biases because it is the right thing to do and consistent with Jewish values.
“We have an iron resolve and an unswerving commitment to our mission to rooting out bigotry and anti-Semitism, to challenging it and limiting the damage that it does,” he said.
Boyette said the ADL began implementing “Confronting Anti-Semitism” workshops at Gratz Jewish Community High School locations back in 2005, right after an incident at Lower Merion High School in which an Israel Club poster was defaced with swastikas.
At the March 10 program at the museum, Boyette showed the students examples of anti-Semitic graffiti taken from the area, in part as a way to get students to think about how they would respond if they encountered something similar.
Julie Cohen, a Gratz student and a junior at Cheltenham High School, said her school is an inclusive place and she hasn’t really seen intolerance of any kind.
But, she acknowledged, “just because I may not see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Marissa, a Gratz student from its Reading, Pa., branch who asked that her last name be withheld, said that in her area, which has a smaller Jewish population than the Philly suburbs, incidents of anti-Semitism are more common.
“So the Jew jokes, I really don’t have a problem with, like, ‘Oh, your nose is big’ or ‘Pick up the penny,’ ” she said. “But I draw the line at the Holocaust.”
She said that when one fellow student found out she was Jewish, he began drawing an oven and a Hitler mustache. She recalled telling him it wasn’t funny.
Miller-Sobel, the Abington student, said the museum event got him thinking. He planned to read the “Confronting Anti-Semitism” pamphlet handed out that day.
The roughly 50-page publication provides a brief history of anti-Semitism and contains some responses for some of the most common charges made against Jews, including that Jews killed Jesus, that Jews masterminded the 9/11 attacks, and that Jews control the media. It also offers some general guidelines for responding, such as encouraging people to count to 10 and calm down before speaking. It tells students that if they don’t respond in the moment, it is OK to do so later.
“I definitely didn’t realize how much anti-Semitism is still around,” Miller-Sobel said. “I’m going to be entering the real world soon and I’ll need to know how to handle situations like these.”