In August, the country watched the streets of Charlottesville, Va., become a battleground, as white supremacists waved Nazi flags and shouted vile phrases about Jews and other minorities, and a rage-filled racist took the life of an innocent women and injured many others.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. surged by more than one-third in 2016 and have jumped by 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017. The ADL also reports that in 2016, the number of incidents reported of anti-Semitic bullying and vandalism in elementary schools and high schools across the country increased dramatically.
Thus, perhaps now more than ever, impressionable children are exposed to proliferating anti-Semitism and many other forms of hate that are rampant in the news, on social media and in casual conversation. They witness role models and leaders discussing it, repeating it, analyzing it, debating it — and it penetrates into their own vernacular without hesitation. But lack of maturity and understanding prevent them from truly recognizing the gravity of their own behavior and speech when they reiterate slurs, replicate symbols and repeat other comments and actions that offend, instill fear and hurt those who know more, those who know better.
As anyone who has been targeted can attest, the pain and terror inflicted doesn’t discriminate based on the offender’s ignorance. Furthermore, when one group is targeted, all are at risk. Therefore, anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem; it is truly a
Our schools are faced with the challenges of deciphering intent, determining appropriate responses and future prevention. They must do this not only when hate acts and speech occur on school playgrounds and school buses, in classrooms, hallways and lunchrooms, at social and sporting events, but now when these behaviors transpire outside school hours, via social media and direct messaging.
Many discipline the culprit. Some use the incidents as teachable moments. But so much more can be done.
Schools and religious leaders have a perpetual obligation to always do better, not just for the students involved in particular incidents but for the entire student body and for the future of the world at large. It isn’t only important to teach those who perpetrate; bystanders are also culpable in such instances and need to know how to properly become “upstanders,” as the Anti-Defamation League espouses.
Earlier this year, the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism corralled nearly 200 of the most prestigious leaders from every sector in the greater metro area to come together at the first-ever Atlanta Leadership Forum on Anti-Semitism to discuss how to stand as a united city to combat anti-Semitism and hate in our community. Topical presentations from experts led to inspiring facilitated discussions among the business, religious, law enforcement, academic, civic, nonprofit, arts and entertainment, cultural, ethnic and social leaders, generating over 100 pages of ideas of how Atlanta can keep anti-Semitism and hate at bay and be an example to other communities. One of the top priorities to emerge from AIAAS’ Leadership Forum was focusing efforts on children — through education, exposure, involvement, responsibility and more.
AIAAS also launched a secret Facebook group as a private, nonpartisan space for the Atlanta community to discuss instances of anti-Semitism; within three days it had more than 3,500 members. It has since become a communal support system for families with children who experience anti-Semitic behavior from classmates.
All of these factors and more have compelled the growing grassroots effort, now approximately 4,400 strong, to focus its attention and energy on an ambitious endeavor to address these issues with all of those who work to shape the hearts and minds of children.
More than 200 impassioned AIAAS volunteers are currently working together to host an educational leadership event in November. AIAAS is inviting thousands of educational and religious leaders from 10 metro-area districts representing public schools, private schools, homeschool groups and religious schools, as well as educational, religious, human and civil rights, and social justice organizations at the local, state, regional and national levels. They will address proactive and reactive responses to passive and aggressive anti-Semitism and other forms of hate as they relate to children, schools, curriculum, policies, procedures, protocols, programs, resources, tools and much more. The event, whose date and location are to be announced, will include topical presentations from experts in the field and facilitated discussions amongst attendees.
To learn more about AIAAS, visit stopantisemitismatl.org, and to become involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauren Menis, Danielle Cohen and Lisa Fox Freedman are founding members of the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, which formed earlier this year and held its first forum in Sandy Springs.