(Hanna Barczyk / For The Times)

Education

Opinion: What’s missing in education

I saw a need for antisemitism education at my school. Students should learn to recognize and take action against discrimination of any kind.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/brookeruttenberg/" target="_self">Brooke </a>

Brooke

August 25, 2022
As the longstanding realities of racial injustice in the U.S. have rightfully come to the forefront of our minds in the past few years, especially following the murder of George Floyd, many schools around the country have been taking the initiative to address these realities in meaningful ways.

I am privileged to go to a private school in the Los Angeles area that has done necessary and impactful work in considering the education of its students.

Yet, as the administration implemented diversity, equity and inclusion training for their students, changed aspects of the curriculum and designated safe spaces for students of different identities by initiating affinity groups, I noticed, as a Jewish student, that antisemitism was rarely part of the discussion. 

A 2021 study by the American Jewish Committee showed that one in four Jews had experienced antisemitism in the last year. The study corresponded to the FBI’s 2020 hate crime statistics report, which found that hate crimes against Jews in 2020 increased by 9% compared to that in 2019, and made up 54.9% of all religious hate crimes at 2% of the US population and 2.5% of those who identify as having a religion.

The rise in antisemitism has been felt viscerally by various Jewish communities as they have watched — or even experienced — the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting at the Tree of Life congregation in 2018, or the Texas synagogue hostage situation this year. These are only the most harrowing of the many incidents

American Jews recognize this increase in antisemitism with 82% believing that it is on the rise, according to the AJC. However, only 44% of non-Jewish Americans agree, which means there is important implications for education about antisemitism and awareness of the way it exists in modern-day America, especially for identity groups that are not themselves implicated in it. And as we have collectively recognized as it relates to other minority groups, a significant part of this education will have to contextualize the present circumstances in the history of violence against Jewish people. 

Consider, in this context, the troubling statistic from a 2020 survey that one in 10 adults under 40 had never heard the word “Holocaust” before, and that 63% did not know that six million Jews, among millions of others, were murdered in it. Or the recent comment by Whoopi Goldberg on “The View” — which she has since apologized for — that “the Holocaust isn’t about race.”

I have been volunteering at the Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles for more than two years and have had the honor to know and hear from many Jewish survivors. One, 95-year-old David Lenga, told me he sees this lack of education in real-time, as people respond to his testimony: “People think I’m lying.”

Originally from Lodz, Poland, Lenga was sent to several labor camps including Auschwitz and liberated from Kaufering when he was 17. Lenga’s said his mission today is Holocaust education.

“We have to talk about its consequences and its implications and how it started and why it started and who made it possible,” he said. 

Lenga, like any individual survivor, can only be one voice in a larger network of official and unofficial education. For all the important work that Jewish community educators and museums are doing across the country, there is so much more to be done.

When I started thinking about this problem in my own school, I thought about the increased attentiveness towards other minority groups, especially the idea of a designated identity-based safe space. As I saw other students benefit significantly from these spaces, I realized that other Jewish students and I would similarly benefit from an inclusive space for open discussion.

We envisioned a group that would complement the others that already existed, as they brought attention to racial injustice, ethnic discrimination, and religious hate in America. This group gave us the space to discuss the hostage situation in Texas earlier this year; it allowed us to commemorate Holocaust remembrance day as a community. 

I recognized, also, though, that education and commemoration could not just be limited to the Jewish students. I saw a need for more antisemitism education at my school, and to that end I have been working on a curriculum for middle schoolers that covers prejudice and stereotypes, scapegoating and propaganda, Holocaust history, and what each person can do. My goal was to make these lessons specific to Jewish history but general in the conclusions: recognizing and taking action against discrimination of any kind is, in my mind, an important aspect of antisemitism education. 

My school has agreed to implement the curriculum I have been working on, next year — and it is accessible online for those interested (at historyintoaction.com). But I share my story in part to say that if you are a student, Jewish or not, and you recognize a gap in your school’s education, voice your opinions and your needs — as long as you feel safe doing so.

The openness to these ideas must start at the administrative level, which is unfortunately not a given in the contemporary political climate: This year, to the shock of many, the Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust called “Maus.” School boards around the country at the moment are introducing bans on other types of discussion in classrooms, especially surrounding race and gender.

But if you have the opportunity, and are in a school where the administration fosters openness and is willing to hear you out, there is room, as a student, to make change. 

The other part of my sharing this is to publicize the realities facing Jewish people in America today as antisemitism rises. As I have learned more, I feel passionate about spreading awareness of the statistics and the stories that underlie them. I also am passionate, however, not just about learning and commemorating and mourning, but also about visions of a better future. If  “we stand up in unison,” as David Lenga advises us, we can make impactful changes in our education systems, which will not just correct misconceptions and prevent antisemitism, but will reassert the importance of Jewish celebration.