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A Principal Who Rightly Stood Up for School-Based Wrongs
The recent wave of anti-Semitic outbursts in various nations raises important questions about how to respond effectively to such assaults. A little-known episode that took place 65 years ago this month, involving a German-American high school principal, provides some guidance.
The latest outrages have included the attempted bombing of a synagogue in Kiev; the mob attack on a synagogue in Caracas, Venezuela; an eightfold increase in anti-Semitic attacks in England last month; and shouts of "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas!" at a rally in Amsterdam, Holland.
In the United States, incidents have included rock singer Courtney Love accusing "Jew loan officers and Jew private banks" of stealing from her. Sixth-graders in St. Louis staged a "Hit a Jew" day. Curiously, their principal has claimed that the students' actions were not anti-Semitic.
More than six decades ago this month, a German-American high school principal in New York City was also confronted with anti-Semitism -- and responded very differently.
In February 1944, five students from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens were caught painting anti-Semitic slogans in nearby Queens Village. Principal Ralph W. Haller faced a dilemma. Technically, he had no jurisdiction over what students did outside the grounds. But he understood the moral importance of going beyond the letter of the law to find a way to punish the attackers and send a message to potential vandals everywhere.
Searching the rule books, Haller found that he was permitted to prevent a student from graduating if he or she demonstrated "poor American citizenship." At a meeting of parents on Feb. 12, 1944, the principal declared: "I consider such [anti-Semitic] activities totally in contradiction to everything that the America of today or the America which we hope to have tomorrow stands for." Therefore, he announced, his new policy would be to consider anti-Semitism by definition to be un-American, and he would block the graduation of any student involved in anti-Semitic acts.
Haller said that he "counseled with many non-Jewish principals," and found them in agreement with his choices. He emphasized that as a Protestant and a German-American, "I feel that I have the right and duty to speak out on this issue."
His action is all the more impressive when you recall the extent of anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi sentiment among his fellow German-Americans. Just five years earlier, more than 20,000 supporters of the German-American Bund took part in a pro-Hitler rally in New York's Madison Square Garden. And in nearby Suffolk County in the late 1930s, tens of thousands of German-Americans flocked to Camp Siegfried each weekend to enjoy Nazi-style parades, propaganda sessions and rounds of the Horst Wessel song ("When Jewish blood drips from the knife/Then will the German people prosper").
Today, too, creative and courageous thinking is needed to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitism. For example:
· School principals need to respond swiftly and forcefully to anti-Semitic eruptions. The "Hit a Jew" day students in St. Louis deserved more than brief suspensions. Principal Linda Lelonek was wrong to claim that the actions were "not anti-Semitic behavior at all," and wrong to refrain from penalizing those who taunted Jewish children and encouraged the "hitters." Principals should not make excuses for violent, bigoted students.
· Celebrity anti-Semitism should not be laughed off. We may chuckle at the foibles of public figures, but when their unorthodox behavior crosses the line into expressions of bigotry, then it's no longer harmless fun. The culprits need to be ostracized.
· Holocaust-deniers must not be treated with kid gloves. Pope Benedict XVI called on Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson to recant. If Williamson refuses, how will the pope respond?
· World leaders must speak out. The European Union Parliament has so far refrained from explicitly condemning the recent wave of anti-Semitism. The E.U.'s voice needs to be heard, especially in view of the new Anti-Defamation League survey of seven leading European countries showing that 41 percent of their citizens believe Jews "have too much power in the business world," and 31 percent blame them for the current economic turmoil.
· Economic leverage should be used to combat anti-Semitism. U.S. aid to Egypt and Saudi Arabia can be used as pressure to remove anti-Semitic material from government-controlled media and school books, just as international pressure forced the United Arab Emirates in 2004 to shut down the Zayed Center, which promoted anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial.
Anti-Semitism can never be eliminated. But leaders who make an extra effort to penalize offenders can help create an environment in which hatred is regarded as unacceptable, and where haters are confined to the far margins of society.
That's what Ralph Haller was trying to do in 1944. Let's learn from his example.
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America's response to the Holocaust (www.WymanInstitute.org).