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First Amendment: 75 years after Kristallnacht, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head

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Charles C. Haynes
November 14, 2013

Americans have long needed a wake-up call about pernicious anti-Semitism that still poisons our society—and last week we got one.

 On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht—the violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place in Germany on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938—The New York Times published a chilling account of pervasive anti-Semitism in Pine Bush Central School District, located in a rural area 90 miles north of New York City.

 Drawing on 3,500 pages of deposition testimony in a lawsuit against the district filed by three Jewish families, reporter Benjamin Weiser chronicles years of harassment and intimidation directed at Jewish students.

 Swastikas everywhere, Jewish kids attacked, Nazi salutes on school buses, anti-Jewish slurs—and much more—according to Jewish students and parents.

 New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was so disturbed after reading the article that he directed the New York State Police and the State Division of Human Rights to investigate.

 The legal system will determine the culpability of schools officials (who admit to some of the incidents but claim they did what they could to address the issue). But a community where young people regularly carve swastikas with “die Jew” messages on school property clearly has a big problem.

 Anti-Semitism may not rise to this level in many other school districts (or at least one hopes not), but ugly incidents directed at Jews are not uncommon in some of the districts I have visited the past two decades. Prejudice against Jews is especially evident in rural communities such as Pine Bush where Jewish families are small minorities.

 Only 12 percent of Americans admit to strong anti-Semitic views (down from 15 percent in 2011), according to a survey of attitudes toward Jews released last month by the Anti-Defamation League.

 But the scope and intensity of anti-Jewish sentiment is perhaps better measured by the ten of thousands of websites spewing hatred for Jews. And by the fact that in 2011 (the most recent year reported by the FBI), 62 percent of the 1,318 hate crimes in the U.S. motivated by religious bias were directed at Jews.

 In Europe, the situation is even worse. In a recent poll conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, nearly one fourth of Jewish respondents said they were discriminated against on the grounds of religion or ethnic background in the 12 months preceding the survey.

 Combating anti-Semitism requires more than disciplining a few students caught in the act of harassing others, as Pine Bush officials claim they did. It takes a commitment to educate all students—including those from homes with anti-Semitic parents—in the truth about Judaism and Jews.

 And it takes a commitment by all members of the school community to create and sustain a caring school culture where students learn to respect one another across religious and ethnic differences. (To learn how, visit www.character.org.)

 Lest we forget, Kristallnacht was a defining moment in the Nazi campaign against the Jews. Instigated by Nazi party officials, Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth, the destruction of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues set the stage for the systematic murder of Jews in the Holocaust.

 On that terrible night of broken glass 75 years ago, many Germans disturbed by the violence and hate looked the other way—remaining silent when speaking up could have still made a difference.

 That’s why “never again” must include taking alarm at warning signs of ignorance and hate, especially among young people. Schools must be the solution, not part of the problem.

 Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Email: chaynes@newseum.org.



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