Rural Students and Teaching About Antisemitism
September 27, 2007 2:09 PM   Subscribe

A question on antisemitism and the instruction of rural school-kids, asked on behalf of my husband.

Anon to keep our location confidential:

"I am noticing more antisemitism here at Rural School than I expected. There have been a few mild to moderately troubling things happening in the fringes of my classroom-- mostly talk-- so I want to break this into the open.

When we did The Holocaust at Urban School, the city kids really didn't understand why people hated Jews ("aren't they White?"), so I prefaced the unit with a handout I found online called The Roots of Antisemitism [he specifically asked that I not link to this elementary-level article as to not color answers. But it is just that-- elementary.]. I think I would like to include more info.

Would you ask anyone who may have input what they would suggest I include? Is there anything in particular I should make sure I mention? I have many of my own ideas, but I would like to get the Jewish perspective on reasons for modern forms of antisemitism, *specifically* to be presented to members of a small, rural community who may have little to no exposure to people of the Jewish faith and/or culture."

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posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
When I was in the 7th grade (back in the late 70s), our grade worked through a curriculum called Facing History and Ourselves, which went way beyond the usual "read Diary of Anne Frank" level of things. I don't remember much about 7th grade anymore, but I remember that.

It looks like the program has expanded greatly beyond teaching about the Holocaust, but poke around on their website - it looks like they have a ton of resources available.

Data point: this was in an urban public school, in a town with a large Jewish population.
posted by rtha at 2:19 PM on September 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

I've visited rural towns where Catholicism was viewed with suspicion and anti-Catholic talk. I didn't get the impression it was more than schoolyard bullshit, and the fact that there was no Catholic presence whatsoever in a strongly German Protestant town. I mean the kids weren't anti-Papist, they were just uncultured.

I would bet, unless this is areas with deep-seated racism and anti-semitism (e.g., a place where the KKK still has a real presence), it is most likely due to the fact that being Jewish is an abstraction to them, and probably when they think of Jewish they think of the New York intellectual Jewish stereotype.

I would suggest highlighting the atrocities of the holocaust and not try to censor it. Concentration camps speak for themselves, and would be the truest indicator as to whether these kids are simply being stupid kids or if they are being fed antisemitism at home. The latter is really incurable at a teacher level, where the former is just a matter of persistent education without being ham-handed about it.
posted by geoff. at 2:19 PM on September 27, 2007

Show them the Hank Greenberg documentary, maybe? Sports star, true to his religious convictions.

Stories with protagonists their age and who are recognizably "normal kids", but who are Jewish?

The way to combat anti-Anybodyism is the get the message across at a visceral level that people are more the same than different, and then let the Golden Rule take over.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:29 PM on September 27, 2007

I'm confused about the part where these kids have no exposure to Jewish people -- they don't have tv? The teacher may be able to make Judaism seem much less foreign and off-putting by listing the many famous entertainers that are Jewish whom the kids already accept, like Zac Efron from "High School Musical", Seth Rogan from "Knocked Up", Daniel Radcliffe from "Harry Potter", Paula Abdul from "American Idol," plus Pink, and members of Linkin Park and Maroon 5...

Scratch this if these kids are not in the USA or Canada, of course.
posted by xo at 2:32 PM on September 27, 2007

When I was in 7th grade, a Holocaust survivor spoke to our school. I can't remember any of his words per se, but I will never forget when he pulled up his sleeve.
posted by desjardins at 2:38 PM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Couple things: show them "Paper Clips", for one.
For two, and this is an argument from someone who works for a faithbased NPO--it's not only that lots of people don't have exposure/experience with $x religion, it's that we don't *care*. That sounds waaaay far from what I mean it to be--really it's the inverse of racism or antisemitism, since I don't CARE if you're black or white or purple or green or a scientologist or of the flying spaghetti monster clan, people are people, assholes and otherwise.

With that said, I also have a history degree (I know, right?), with foci in east africa, reunification germany, and appalachian economic development, and I've taught and worked with lots of kids before. I really feel that lots of "educational" intentions are really victim's histories, that don't do anything to address the causation of events, just THAT they happened. I recommended the Paper Clips movie because it's how a class came to grips with the real numbers of the holocaust, something that most of us can't really grip. We didn't learn about Hitlers Juegend, the propaganda war, the gestapo, or any of the other reasons that people did what they did in WWII or any other time--and that's what makes history important, is being able SEE and STOP those things before the sneak back in on us.

I live in a town with a large jewish population, I've read the Deuterocanonical Books of the Apocrypha and a good bit of the Torah---but that doesn't mean I have any exposure to Judaism.

But, point is this: if you're trying to discourage isolationism and resentment, you CANNOT do that by teaching that anyone is "different" or "special"---you have to address it in the "because they're PEOPLE" vein. Why don't we drag homosexuals behind our cars? Because no matter what our personal feelings are about them, they are PEOPLE. Why don't we throw bricks through the windows of mosques? On and on.
posted by TomMelee at 2:41 PM on September 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

You mention it as rural. Is it also by any chance also very Christian? If so you can use the Bible to trace antisemitism all the way back to Pharaoh and Moses, stopping to discuss Daniel and Esther before reaching Herod and Judas Maccabeus and Masada. From there I'm sure you can find some juicy stuff before the Spanish Inquisition.
posted by ilsa at 2:57 PM on September 27, 2007

I'm guessing that rural school = proportionally more kids from a protestant christian background than at urban school. The problem here is that these are the sorts of people who are likely to have the most preconceptions and baggage relating to Jews and the least actual exposure to mitigate that. So he needs to be aware of what he's up against. These kids are drawing influence from their surroundings: the copy of Left Behind on an uncle's nightstand, the sermon in church last Sunday, a casual remark from a parent, etc etc. The worldview of these people is based on an idea that Jews are not really people in the full sense of the word, but are a sort of pre-salvific race waiting to become human in the light of Christ.

Any discussion of the Shoah is going to have to combat that fundamental presupposition. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't get comments like: "Well, the Jews rejected Jesus, right? Isn't that why the holocaust happened?"

He should do a little reading on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism apart from the Shoah so that he has more context to address these kinds of questions. There isn't a simple boilerplate answer because what sounds deceptively anti-semitic coming out of these kids' mouths is the product of a complicated social, religious and historical process.

I'd recommend that he read Christianity in Jewish Terms, which was co-edited by one of my teachers, the late Tikva Frymer-Kensky. It's a wonderful and readable resource which traces the theological differences between Jews and Christians. Obviously, almost none of the information he gleans from this book will wind up in an actual classroom lecture. But having this background may give him more confidence to address these issues when they do crop up.

Good luck.
posted by felix betachat at 2:59 PM on September 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think TomMelee has it.

It doesn't really do much to find out about the fact that Group X has been victimized in these ways, unless one has a more complete understanding of the situation that lead to it. The Holocaust is horrific and learning anything about it leaves one feeling sick. It can get one to empathize and sympathize, but it on its own can't stop people from still thinking that maybe these people are different.

The history, however.. The history shows that they aren't different. An analysis of the causes that lead to anti-semitism, the fears and anxieties that lead people to fear the other -- that can really help, I think. If you understand how anti-semitism began--what psychological and cultural factors led people to think so poorly of fellow people--then it becomes easier to see how poorly-motivated such prejudice is.

The causes of prejudice are what show prejudice to be so horrible; just teaching the effects can't get to that.
posted by Ms. Saint at 3:12 PM on September 27, 2007

I think that teaching the Holocaust (while worthwhile on its own) is completely off-track for addressing anti-semitism close to home. None of these kids are erecting gas chambers, and the distance between their callow, uninformed bigotry and institutional murder is simply too great to bridge.

Teaching them that "hey, there are famous people who happen to be Jewish" doesn't seem like it would accomplish much, since you're talking about individuals, who might be exceptions to whatever pat rule these kids have chosen to believe.

I'd say that if the kids are saying or doing anti-semitic things, address those head-on. Bring it up in class. "Yesterday, I overhead one of your classmates say XYZ. Why would he say that?" Better still to confront the kid saying it when he says it. If a kid makes a crack about another kid being stingy like a Jew (or whatever), ask him "how stingy are Jews?…Oh really, how do you come to know that?"

Disclaimer: my background is Jewish, never faced much anti-semitism.
posted by adamrice at 3:19 PM on September 27, 2007

you can discuss the holocaust, and there are a lot of good resources about teaching it, but please don't let that be the only thing your husband teaches. judaism is about so much more, and jews are no more defined by it than blacks are by slavery--it's a huge part of our history, but not who we are. a good place to start, especially if these kids are starting at zero, is what judaism is. honestly, a unit on judaism, islam, buddhism, and hinduism would probably be a good idea.

that said, i imagine if your husband reached out to a local rabbi, s/he would be happy to help him, either by supplying educational materials or arranging a visit.

i grew up in the south--99% of the antisemitism i encountered was just ignorance, kids parroting crap they overheard. i like the idea of listing famous jews--even if there are no jews in your town for them to meet in real life, they do sort of interact with entertainers, and are influenced by them, and consider them a part of their peer group.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:26 PM on September 27, 2007

I grew up in a rural town a and I was the only Jew in my school. There was a fair amount of anti-semitism. I would say that it was mainly due to lack of familiarity and fear--rather than overt dislike. My guess is the kids in question in the school don't know any Jews and they are responding to things they've heard but they don't have the context to know that Jews are real people who have families and jobs, etc. and whose feelings can be hurt. They are just using the slang they hear for "dumb" or whatever.

When I shared my family's traditions in class (especially the food based), they were always well received.

With elementary school kids I would take it easy on the Holocaust stuff; you don't want to give them nightmares. I would focus more on the positive aspect of being open minded and getting to know people who are different from you. See if there's a rabbi from the nearest city who would be willing to come speak to the class around Hannukah. Bonus points if he can bring gold coins and dreidles.

Another thing that seemed pretty successful in my town, was that some of the more open churches had interfaith days where they would take the kids around to teach them about other religions. I have NO idea why they did it; especially since the town was fairly conservative, but it must have been in the interests of teaching love and compassion. Perhaps it was in response to prejudice language they overheard or something. I only remember being at temple for services and being totally thrown off by having kids from my class come in and sit in the pews. It gave me a lot of pride to have them see that I knew this crazy language and was at home in this community with the crazy rituals. In the days that followed, the kids who went through this went on to ask me a lot of questions about my faith in a very open minded way.

So this might be another option: reach out to the local parishes and see if they might be willing to get engaged in community teach-ins about open-mindedness and loving everyone the way Jesus would have.
posted by paddingtonb at 3:43 PM on September 27, 2007

I have to second those who think that teaching the history of the Shoah -- a great thing to do in school, mind you -- won't change the mind of those who have been conditioned to think "Jew = runs the world, own the banks, steals our farms, killed the Jesus, etc".

if their antisemitism is religiously motivated, as I assume it is, you're kinda fucked, because they'll either think that Hitler tried to do something about a real, not imagined, "Jewish problem" and it kinda got out of hand, or they'll simply think, as felix said, "tough shit, they killed our Savior and they're getting 2,000 years worth of shit for it".

the problem here of course is that teaching them not the history of the Shoah but the history of antisemitism will have to reveal to them the most uncomfortable fact (for them) that most of the antisemitism one encounters throughout history had religious reasons; they won't take much comfort, if they're religious, in learning that most if not all of the narrative that gave birth to much of the Common Era's antisemitism, ie the gospel Passion narrative, is fictional and not historical.

showing them how all antisemitical lies that have been propagated throughout history are demonstrably false, ie lies imagined by people with a religious/political/economic agenda, is a better step. but then they're very young kids, so good luck with them too.

let me be clear with an example: if a child has been raised by her parents to think that blacks have smaller brains that make them dumber, lazier, and more prone to committing crime, you show that child how it is all bullshit, and provably so, on a scientific and medical level. paradoxically, showing them a book about blacks lynched by mobs in the South will help less.

show them the lies that are the root of discrimination first; the stories of the victims and their appalling suffering can come at a later stage.
posted by matteo at 3:52 PM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Something that I didn't see anyone mention: many churches still teach that the Jews killed Jesus. I grew up as one of the few Jews in a rust belt town, and I heard this a fair amount. That said, it was still mostly ignorance, not particular ill intent.

Unfortunately, "Nuh-uh! The Romans killed Jesus!" is not a snappy comeback.
posted by ilyanassa at 3:56 PM on September 27, 2007

May I suggest contacting the Anti-Defamation League? Answering this kind of question, especially for teachers, is the whole reason they exist and I am quite certain they will be delighted to provide you with appropriate and relevant materials.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:03 PM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

This problem exists around here in rural Vermont to a certain extent. I have a friend who was a librarian at a local school and she'd just sort of overhear kids making flip anti-Jew remarks or parroting things they'd heard on hate sites similar to "the Jewish problem" arguments. She had a real debate with herself about whether it was useful to engage in "the Holocaust didn't happen" discussions with kids who were exploring those topics, or whether it was better to just treat those discussions as crazy and not worth really discussing. I remember that it got worse around Christmastime and I'm not sure exactly what she did.

Along Tom Melee's line, I've found that the Southern Poverty Law Center has great educational materials geared towards taching tolerance. They have a magazine and a website at that are all about educational ideas for dealing with similar issues. They have some free materials that you can download in the For Teachers section. Anti-seimitism is one but they also address bullying, poverty and race issues and gender and other religious differences. The entire site is geared towards age appropriate classroom exercises and projects and Iv'e found their approach to be sensible, sane and very inclusive of all different types of viewpoints while pointedly trying to do something about intolerance. I read their magazine regularly and find it full of good ideas.
posted by jessamyn at 4:22 PM on September 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg which I mentioned before. I haven't seen it since it came out, so you should definitely watch it first to see if it's appropriate for the age level.

Into the Arms of Strangers is a documentary about German Jewish kids who were sent away from their families, to England, to survive the Holocaust. I haven't seen it, but possibly a workable "in", if it represents the stories of kids who are their age.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:37 PM on September 27, 2007

If you do follow ikkyu2's excellent advice, consider asking the ADL for a referral to a local rabbi who might be willing to meet with your husband and advise him.

The antisemitism he is seeing may be simple ignorance that will fall before the truth as presented by a good teacher, or it could be an outcropping of something deeper rooted and darker, and he will need to step carefully, not just for his own and your sake.
posted by jamjam at 4:48 PM on September 27, 2007

As good as the advice to expose some of these kids to Jewish culture or to some Jewish personalities is, I want to stress the fact that antisemitism has nothing to do with "the Jews"; as one can see in rural areas, it prospers most when there are no Jews around. Antisemitism has, however, everything to do with anti-semites themselves. There is evidence that education which aims at the development of critical thinking and a classroom atmosphere where feelings do not have to be suppressed will achieve more than any explicit teaching about antisemitism.

A classic piece of theory on this (even though it has not to offer much in terms of practical advice) is Adorno's Education after Auschwitz.
posted by criticalbeaver at 5:21 PM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

My 8th grade class visited the Museum of Tolerance and had a survivor speak. The Museum was fabulous, and they have lesson plans and teaching guides online. Please check it out.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 5:43 PM on September 27, 2007

s one can see in rural areas, it prospers most when there are no Jews around

That's the point of exposing the kids to some Jews.
Jews: too charming to hate, if you've ever met any.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:54 PM on September 27, 2007

I second "Paper Clips". Great movie, kid level (even adults will like it).
posted by 6:1 at 6:08 PM on September 27, 2007

I didn't understand either at that age. What I think might have worked for me:

List a whole bunch of common prejudices, at least some of which the kids will know about - immigrants, people with different skin colour, people who don't speak your language (or have funny accents), people in non-western clothes, religious or ideological differences, etc.

Throw all of those things into the same basket, call it something or other that communicates "needless hate/scapegoating of people that seem different". Say that all these different things are really just different faces of the same thing, that anti-semitism is one of those things, and this (the holocaust) is where that road ultimately leads.

So, you're expanding the holocaust to teach about about the dangers of prejudices of their world, and giving a context to anti-semitism in more familiar terms, like anti-immigrant views, or religious discrimination.

It also suggests that it doesn't really matter why people hated Jews, just that they did, because whatever their reasons, they were just excuses and could not possibly justify their actions.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:42 PM on September 27, 2007

I'm surprised nobody suggested Elie Wiesel's "Night" as good reading for this topic. It's an amazing book, short, and good for 6-8th graders and above. It's very insightful and sad and as far as I'm concerned, a very good cure for anti-semitism.
posted by WaterSprite at 6:50 PM on September 27, 2007

Now that I think of it and read others' comments, I have never met a kid that didn't like comic books. That being said, Maus.
posted by ilsa at 8:30 PM on September 27, 2007

Might the teacher not get in trouble if he brings a rabbi to class or teaches a segment on Judaism, Hinduism, etc.? In some rural Texas schools you risk getting administrators and parents having a hissy fit if you even mention a non-Christian religion in class.

A teacher friend in rural Texas wanted to expose her middle school kids to different religions -- not proselytize or lead them in prayer or anything -- and planned to have a rabbi, an imam and a Unitarian/Universalist minister do a round-table talk. She ran it by her principal, who alerted the superintendent and the school board, and they just about seized up in fear and loathing. She was told to never, ever try this again. She left at the end of the year to a more receptive town and school district. Sad.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 8:55 PM on September 27, 2007

Wanting to resay that bringing in someone, a rabbi say, to kids who have no exposure to that faith, and being all preachy about "see how cool he is" and "jews are too cute to hate" is going to get you nowhere but maybe backwards. Cramming TOLERANCE down people's throats really just makes them less willing to accept difference.
posted by TomMelee at 4:16 AM on September 28, 2007

Oops pressed post too fast. Antisemitism, like poverty, is a cycle. And just in the same way that you can't drag a kid out of the cycle of poverty by opening a bank account for him, you can't take the bigot out of a kid with a couple hours of tolerance instruction, especially, ESPECIALLY if they're going home to intolerance. In my experience, you can't make much headway at ALL until the early teen years, when kids are beginning to realize that their parents aren't right all the time--and then, in my experience, friendly conversations and open questions are how you get them to open their eyes. I'd love to share a conversation I had once with a 14 year old girl about this topic--but that'd be a book and a half.
posted by TomMelee at 4:20 AM on September 28, 2007

As good as the advice to expose some of these kids to Jewish culture or to some Jewish personalities is, I want to stress the fact that antisemitism has nothing to do with "the Jews"; as one can see in rural areas, it prospers most when there are no Jews around.

This is absolutely true. When I was teaching in Taiwan 30 years ago, I was shocked at the level of casual anti-Semitism among the locals, most of whom had never (knowingly) met a Jew. (My girlfriend, who was Jewish, was constantly having dinner with people who would start making remarks about Jews, and were very taken aback when she'd say "Uh, I'm Jewish.") This wasn't nasty stuff—no "Hitler was right" or anything—just assuming that everybody knows Jews are greedy and good with money and run the world.

What worked for me was leading my class through the fact that they didn't like prejudice against Chinese people, pointing out that that prejudice was based on ignorance and thoughtless repetition of what people had heard, then getting them to see the obvious analogy. I don't think Holocaust documentaries would have helped much; the point is not to make them see that BAD THINGS have happened to Jews, the point is to make them see that Jews are people just like them. Make this point in whatever way seems to fit the circumstances in this particular Rural School.
posted by languagehat at 5:39 PM on September 28, 2007

Have they had The Diary of Anne Frank on their reading list yet? The kids might relate best to someone their own age, revealing her history in the first person.
posted by Juggling Frogs at 12:01 PM on December 18, 2007

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