How to Talk to Kids About Anti-Semitism and Why It’s Important
With hate crimes and anti-Semitic acts on the rise, it is crucial for parents of all faiths to talk about this prejudice against Jews with their kids. Here are some concrete ways to have this discussion.
Like millions of people around the country, I spent January 6 glued to a screen. First awaiting the Georgia Senate race runoff results. Then, watching as the insurrection at the Capitol unfolded. Racism and xenophobia were out in full force. So, too, was anti-Semitism, which is the hatred of, or prejudice against, Jews.
Though the administration has changed since then and signs point to a new era, these issues will not miraculously disappear overnight. (Certainly, freshman congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene's anti-Semitic conspiracy theory and recent refusal to disavow or apologize for her statements was a clear reminder of that). So parents still need to work to raise kids who will fight discrimination and racism and who will stand up as allies for peers when others are targeted, whether or not they share the victim's identity.
Facts About Anti-Semitism
Having a better sense of any issue will help you address it with your kids and this one is no different. Here are four common questions about anti-Semitism and how it happens.
Is anti-Semitism really still a problem?
Anti-Semitism has been documented throughout history, appearing across the globe in various forms for centuries. But recently, there has been a noted rise in anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 11,208 incidents of extremism or anti-Semitism in the United States in 2019 and 2020.
These events include vandalization with swastika graffiti, class Zoom disruptions with anti-Semitic comments, conspiracy theories blaming Jews for COVID-19, and an uptick of anti-Semitism on college campuses. In the last five years, we've also seen the mobs in Charlottesville chanting, "Jews will not replace us," (a reference to a belief that Jews are systematically orchestrating a white genocide), and the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh.
This rise in hate crimes has also contributed to less obvious forms of anti-Semitism. Notably, some QAnon supporters invoking Medieval claims about a "Jewish blood libel" that is now believed by some to be connected to a cabal that allegedly rigged the 2020 election. Anti-Semitism was also apparent during the Capitol riots, which included members of many documented hate groups, some even displaying Nazi-inspired paraphernalia.
Is anti-Semitism a form of racism?
Certainly, racism and anti-Semitism can go hand in hand, and for Jews of color, both may impact the same person. But while racism describes prejudice or discrimination directed against people of a marginalized racial group, anti-Semitism refers to prejudice or discrimination directed against people based on their Jewish religious identification.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Jews can be of any racial or ethnic background, many people who hold anti-Semitic views do believe Jews to be a distinct race and often their views weave in racist ideology. In 2019, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order making anti-Semitism punishable under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which only deals with discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and nationality, not on the basis of religion. Classifying Judaism as a race, ethnicity, or nationality is something that is often debated within the Jewish community since this classification creates the misperception that all Jews are white when that is not the reality.
What is the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?
Anti-Zionism is the opposition to Israel as a Jewish state, and there are a lot of different views, both within the Jewish community and in the larger world, about whether disputing Israel's right to exist is inherently anti-Semitic. What is clearer is that while challenging or condemning the policies of the Israeli government is perfectly valid, the way this is done can sometimes become anti-Semitic. That happens when criticism of Israel makes use of anti-Semitic stereotypes, blames all Jews for the actions of that country's government, uses coded terms like "Zionist" to describe a Jewish person in general, or assumes that Jews cannot be impartial on issues due to their real or perceived views on Israel. When that occurs, criticism crosses the line from denouncing a government into anti-Semitism.
Is Holocaust denial a form of anti-Semitism?
Yes. Denying the Holocaust, the state-sponsored persecution and murder of 6 million European Jews and millions of non-Jews at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War, is a form of anti-Semitism. These denialists claim that Jews are inventing or exaggerating a genocide to promote Jewish interests. In this narrative, those interests often include secretly plotting some kind of global conspiracy. Such views are dangerous because they perpetuate long-standing stereotypes about Jews—including those which paved the way for the Holocaust.
Specific Issues for Jewish Parents
Addressing anti-Semitism is going to be different for parents who are Jewish than for those who are not. My family is Jewish and while I found the Capitol riots deeply upsetting, I didn't find the presence of anti-Semitism all that shocking. I have a lived Jewish experience that gives me the context to understand that this is nothing new. My experience included growing up under the shadow of the Holocaust—my Jewish grandparents fled Nazi Germany for New York—and, as a child, having my synagogue firebombed and burned to the ground.
Just this past October, I was reminded that anti-Semitism can also be delivered casually, when, during my first (and only) pandemic haircut, my stylist mused, "It's a good thing you came in today. Thanks to the Jews, we're probably going to have to close again." A reference, I assumed, to COVID-19 outbreaks in local Orthodox communities (many are very insular and erroneously believed they already had herd immunity by then).
But having a personal connection doesn't always mean that I find it easy to talk to my own kids about this prejudice. Partly, that is because I want to protect them from the knowledge that there are those in the world who would do them harm. In those moments, it is helpful for me to remember that one of the best ways that we can prepare our children to cope with discrimination is by acknowledging that it exists. Doing so reminds them that their experiences are valid and that they can come to us when things feel overwhelming. It is also wise to discuss how children may respond to hostile comments in advance so that they feel prepared if they are ever targeted.
How to have these conversations.
Jenni Mangel, the director of professional learning for Jewish LearningWorks, and a parent of two, suggests making conversations about hard topics a more regular occurrence so that it doesn't feel like you are bringing things up out of the blue. To do this, she advises using the world around you to raise important issues. "We recently had Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is just a built-in place where we can say, this is something that happened, and here is why it is important. And certainly, the Capitol insurrection was an opportunity to say to kids if you ever hear someone say something that is anti-Semitic, I want you to tell me so that we can decide what is the right thing to do about it."
It is also crucial to understand that not all Jews will experience anti-Semitism in the same way. For example, Jews of color often have to navigate the forces of both racism and anti-Semitism. As Chava Shervington, the past president and a current board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network explains, "Unless outwardly identifiable as Jewish, Jews of color often first experience racism and then anti-Semitism." She advises parents to help their children develop both racial and religious pride as a way to increase their resilience. Doing that is particularly important for white Jewish parents who are raising kids of color, and Shervington encourages parents in such families to build what she calls racially relevant homes and to create communities that include other Jews of color.
Shervington further explains that there is a misperception that people of color aren't likely to be Jewish. The result is that Jewish kids of color may actually encounter increased exposure to anti-Semitic comments since people may say things in their presence that they wouldn't say in front of someone they thought could be Jewish.
How Non-Jewish Parents Can Help
For non-Jewish parents of all races, it is crucial to address the role of disinformation and to make sure that you and your kids have your facts in order. Many seemingly innocuous beliefs—say that Jews are generally wealthy or are media moguls—are actually deeply harmful. Such views can serve as the basis for dangerous ideas about Jews' control of the world's financial systems or about Jewish plots to take over various governments. Educating yourself about anti-Semitism will help you identify it when it occurs.
That education can include being attuned to coded phrases. For example, the night before the Capitol insurrection, Infowars' Alex Jones posted a video of himself telling a crowd in Washington, D.C.: "We have only begun to resist the globalists. We have only begun our fight against their tyranny. They have tried to steal this election in front of everyone." The term globalist originated in Nazi Germany and is often seen as a Jewish dog whistle.
Parents of white kids should also know that far-right and neo-Nazi groups have been growing, in part, by actively recruiting white teens (often boys) online. Parents should look out for warning signs of white supremacist radicalization.
How We Can All Fight Anti-Semitism
Encourage our schools to address the issue. Teaching about the Holocaust, as well as about the many other systematic campaigns of genocide that have occurred in modern history, is an effective way to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. It also can help increase civic engagement. One organization that provides such programming is Facing History and Ourselves.
Though parents might be wary of exposing their children to the difficult topics the organization tackles, Laura Tavares, Facing History's program director for organizational learning and thought leadership, explains that their curriculum has a real-world impact. Compared to students who did not participate in Facing History's programming, both independent researchers and the organization's own evaluations have found that the middle and high school students who did participate showed increased tolerance of different viewpoints, displayed more civic engagement, had a greater belief in their ability to make a difference in the world, and expressed increased comfort intervening as a bystander or upstander to disrupt harm. As Tavares says, "We believe that when students understand history they will be better equipped to stand up to bigotry and hate when they encounter it in their own lives."
Have hard conversations at home. Following the election, and then the Capitol riots, there have been some powerful calls for unity. These are meaningful. But we can't let them obscure the work that needs to be done to help prevent further harm. We still need to be having these conversations with our children even while we maintain hope for a better future.
Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was murdered by a neo-Nazi while peacefully protesting in Charlottesville, warned recently in a New York Times article, "Look at the lessons learned from Charlottesville. The rush to hug each other and sing 'Kumbaya' is not an effective strategy." What is effective is accountability and action and that is something that parents can role model and support.
The Bottom Line
One of the particularly difficult things about fighting anti-Semitism is that, like so many other forms of prejudice, it can show up in unexpected ways and it can be hard to spot. However, left unchecked and unacknowledged, it will only continue to grow. Yet whether our kids are directly impacted by this specific form of prejudice or not, we all have a responsibility to name and fight it at every turn. That isn't always easy, but as Jenni Mangel reminds us, "We have to make the space for our kids to be able to ask the hard questions and then we have to be able to struggle with them through the answers."