Antisemitism: A Case That Shouldn’t Be Made

Antisemitism isn’t rare at Stuyvesant, and our education is to blame.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cover Image
By Yile Tong

It was the beginning of the school year, and I was in my second-to-last class of the day. My teacher was explaining her syllabus to us, before asking Jewish students to raise their hands out of the blue. This question made me feel confused and almost embarrassed. Regardless of her intentions, it wasn’t okay for the teacher to pressure students to publicize their religion with no explanation. On one hand, students should feel proud of their identities. However, the long history of Jews being singled out and targeted is a deterrent for many. I ultimately decided to raise my hand, though hesitantly. I didn’t think sharing my Jewish identity would incite any radical reaction, but she ended up talking about how much she “like[s] Jews because of how many days off they gave” her. While the comment may not seem as cutting on the surface, it still felt like a reduction of my identity.

This occasion wasn’t the end of the tense and uncomfortable space she cultivated through her insensitive commentary on religion. It was almost Yom Kippur, and she asked students to explain what it is about. My classmates described that it is when people apologize and forgive in order to start the year fresh. After listening to Jewish students explain this aspect of their culture, she simply responded, “I feel sorry for the Jews. Their holidays are so sad.” Yes, there are sad holidays, just like in any other religion. Some of these sad holidays remember all of the horrible things that have happened to Jews throughout history, largely because of the spread of ignorance. But Yom Kippur is not a sad holiday. It is one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, and it is about moving forward and making amends. The comment felt out of place and not worthy of the pity it received.

Sadly, this situation wasn’t the last of the discomfort I experienced last year. For my Freshman Composition class, we had to complete an I-Search paper. The assignment required us to research anything that interested us. I chose to research Jewish representation in the media, specifically how it is often stereotypical. To kickstart the assignment, we were instructed to go around the room and write down comments, suggestions, and feedback on other papers. When I came back to my seat, I read through my suggestions, and one of them caught my eye. Someone suggested that I talk to an antisemite to hear the other side of the story. My immediate reaction was disbelief and anger. Antisemitism isn’t an argument that can be disputed. It is an everlasting issue that has persisted to this day. I shared the comment with a Jewish friend in that class who sympathized with my frustration. She joked that I might as well “go talk to a Nazi to hear their perspective.” While a bit extreme, it was definitely within reach of what had been written on my paper. I didn’t end up sharing this incident with my teacher, because it seemed to be caused by ignorance, not hatred.

Despite my instant realization that the comment was antisemitic in its invalidation of Jewish victims, I somewhat understand the person’s point. When learning about the Holocaust at Hebrew school, we often learned about the Nazis’ reasoning. We learned how Hitler needed a scapegoat after World War I to regain confidence and how he chose the Jews. Anything that could have been taught to a class about the origins of Hitler and the Holocaust was taught. And while we didn’t exactly look at things from an antisemite’s perspective, we did explore the Nazis’ mindset.

A slogan for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) is “Never Forget.” We talked about this phrase in that class, and I still think about it today. The best way to keep history from repeating itself is to know what not to repeat, which means remembering the past. Remembering the past doesn’t mean remembering just the outcome or the winning side, but also the bad parts, the parts you want to forget ever happened.

Despite this need for culturally sensitive learning, Judaism was never really talked about at my school. The decorations that hung in the hallways were for Christmas, while the winter holiday days off were scheduled around Christmas, not Chanukah, and holiday school singing was also solely for Christmas. The first time I had a public school lesson on Judaism was in sixth grade, and it probably lasted less than a week. Not only did the lesson fail to cover any of the discrimination Jews have been through, but a very important portion of it also contradicted the education I had learned from my Hebrew school. Since that week, Judaism and Jewish history have barely been discussed in my public school education. With this context in mind, how can I blame students and teachers for antisemitic comments when they have been provided with next to no education on the matter?

The solution is simple: include a mandatory curriculum that includes Jewish history. A week in sixth grade isn’t enough. Waiting until 10th grade to learn about the Holocaust isn’t enough. Important understanding of the past fades over the years, which is why Jewish American Heritage Month needs to be celebrated every May. Social studies teachers should be required to teach Jewish education. Culturally sensitive education should be provided to not only students, but also teachers. Ignorance is easiest to address before it becomes a problem in the first place, which means that a lot of the responsibility falls on schools. Schools need to do their part and teach to eliminate ignorance.