It's Time We Taught Anti-Semitism

It's a full-blown problem on American campuses, yet many students can’t even recognize it when it’s staring them in the face, argues Seffi Kogen.

February 2, 2021
 
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Elliot W. Eisner, a longtime professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, once posited that any learning environment has three types of curricula: 1) the explicit curriculum, or what the institution says it teaches, 2) the implicit curriculum, or the learnings that students take away from the institution without their having to be taught, and 3) the null curriculum, or those things that the institution does not teach.

When a topic ends up relegated to the null curriculum -- that is, not taught -- we must wonder whether it is because the institution does not consider that topic to be important. So it is with anti-Semitism.

Three anti-Semitic massacres have occurred in the United States in the past three years: in Pittsburgh; Poway, Calif.; and Jersey City, N.J. Numerous anti-Semitic incidents have taken place at colleges and universities -- including, to cite just a few, Nazi swastika graffiti, fliers saying “Hitler was right” and an incident in which a Holocaust survivor was heckled while telling his story by a student who thought that was an appropriate time to express opposition to the continued existence of the Jewish state of Israel.

But let’s look beyond the anecdotal. What do the numbers say? If anything, quantitative data suggest an even grimmer picture. In a recently released American Jewish Committee State of Antisemitism in America Report, more than half of Americans 18 to 29 years old -- the cohort most widely represented among college students and recent graduates -- said they didn’t know the meaning of the word “anti-Semitism.” It wasn’t a trick question. We simply asked them, “How familiar are you with the term ‘anti-Semitism’?” A little less than a third, 30 percent, said that they had heard the term but were not sure what it meant. And 23 percent more -- nearly a quarter! -- said that they had never even heard the word.

Meanwhile, in our parallel survey of American Jews, a shocking 41 percent in the same age cohort said they had been the target of an anti-Semitic attack or remark -- the highest number in any age group. As many as 82 percent said anti-Semitism in America had increased over the past five years.

The survey findings suggest that these young Jews have a point. When their non-Jewish peers were asked if it is anti-Semitic to say, “The U.S. government only supports Israel because of Jewish money,” 32 percent answered “no.” When asked if the statement “American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America” is anti-Semitic, 39 percent said it is not. And 26 percent said the statement “Israel has no right to exist” is not anti-Semitic. Yet all three are clearly anti-Semitic, according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of anti-Semitism.

Three Necessary Steps

I have no doubt that if one asks young Americans whether they hate Jews, the overwhelming majority would say they do not. But a majority of them do not know what anti-Semitism is, and many can’t even recognize it when it’s staring them in the face.

So what can be done?

The typical first-year student will experience a number of important explicit lessons during college orientation. They will be taught about students who come from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds than they do, or who have different sexual inclinations or gender identities. They will be taught that consent is crucial in any healthy sexual encounter. They will be taught the college or university’s alcohol policy and how to stay safe while drinking. But they will probably not ever hear the word “anti-Semitism,” and, if they do, it’ll be mentioned rapid-fire, as part of a litany of other hatreds.

The data tell us this has to change. Anti-Semitism is a full-blown problem on American campuses. It seems obscured now, because the American Jewish community has funded Hillels at higher education institutions across the country to serve as safe havens and home bases for Jewish students. But to effectively change our survey’s horrifying numbers, colleges and universities must make anti-Semitism education part of their explicit and implicit curricula.

Here are three steps that the American Jewish Committee will be glad to help any institution implement:

  1. First-year students need to learn about anti-Semitism at orientation. They need to hear about the Holocaust. In fact, 21 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 said they know “not much” or “nothing at all” about the Holocaust, and another much-publicized survey in 2018 found that two-thirds of millennials didn’t know what Auschwitz was. They need to learn that anti-Semitism today is not the purview of one political faction or another, but that extremists on both the right and the left perpetuate it.
  2. We need to define anti-Semitism. That’s something that 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds can’t do. Fortunately, a great definition is readily available for adoption by any institution that chooses to use it for educational purposes. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a multinational organization of which the United States is a member, established it in 2016, and government agencies around the world, including by the U.S. Department of Education, have subsequently put it to use.
  3. We need to honor the perspectives of Jews about anti-Semitic words or actions. When dealing with different forms of hate, it has become an article of faith that a group gets to define its own oppression. Put simply: a white person doesn’t get to tell a Black person whether something is racist. No such respect is extended to Jews, however.
    Our survey asked this question: “If a Jewish person or organization considered a statement or idea to be anti-Semitic, would that make you more likely to consider it anti-Semitic, less likely, or would it make no difference to you?” About two-thirds, or 64 percent, of people aged 18 to 29 said it would make no difference to them if a Jewish person told them something was anti-Semitic. Another 21 percent said that such protestation from Jews would make them less likely to consider something anti-Semitic. To fight anti-Semitism as seriously as we confront any other bigotry, we must normalize believing Jews.

We cannot, we must not, assume that the Jews will be OK. Colleges and universities must act. And, slowly, they are acting. Inspired by their work with American Jewish Committee fighting anti-Semitism, two of our interns recently met with the president of their West Coast liberal arts college to raise their concerns about anti-Semitism on campus. At their urging, the president agreed to implement an institutionwide training during next fall’s student orientation to counter anti-Semitism. Other steps seem likely to follow.

Are additional colleges and universities prepared to join them? Is yours?

Bio

Seffi Kogen is the global director of young leadership at the American Jewish Committee.

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