Antisemitism in Washtenaw County Schools: Concerns? Action!

By Ruth Kraut, special to the WJN

Imagine: An eighth grader walks into school and sees a swastika drawn in permanent marker on a desk. You’re a 10th grader, and a friend of a friend says, “You’re Jewish? That’s why you have a big nose.” You’re an 11th grader, and a new friend tells you they have never met a Jew, and asks, “where are your horns?” Imagine overhearing a conversation where someone says, “I Jewed him down.”

It’s not hard to imagine this, is it? And that’s because many WJN readers have experienced antisemitism — sometimes in a school environment. In fact, antisemitism in schools appears to be on the rise. Although Kansas City is not Washtenaw County, a recent survey of Jewish students in the Kansas City area showed that 75% of Jewish teens (yes, three out of four) had experienced anti-Jewish activities. This ranged from “Jew jokes” and “Holocaust-related insults or jokes” to stereotypes, antisemitic graffiti, and Holocaust denial. So, even if the percentages are lower here, there are still a lot of students feeling targeted.

On September 6, the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) held a meeting for parents to discuss starting a Parent Advisory Committee focused on supporting Jewish students and families in K–12 schools, both public and private, throughout Washtenaw County.

As framing for the evening, participants were given an article by University of Michigan Professor of History and Judaic Studies Jeff Veidlinger that characterizes antisemitic incidents into three categories: ignorance, provocation, and threat. Threats require immediate action; ignorance requires education. Veidlinger argues that provocation may require action, education, or even just ignoring it. This framing was helpful as people moved into breakout sessions and discussed their own personal experiences. Each group was asked to share their own experiences but also to talk about how they had responded if something had happened to themselves or one of their family members.

After the meeting, I was able to speak with Carol Ullmann, a parent who was present at the meeting and whose child experienced antisemitic bullying last year. She agreed to be quoted because, “I’m hoping to be a resource to others and create a community of people who want to talk about this.”

Carol and her husband first learned something antisemitic was happening at their child’s middle school when their eighth grader showed them an anonymous text she had received that day. The text said, “You stupid fucking Jew, go back to the fucking camps, go back to Amsterdam.” [The reference to Amsterdam was likely because the eighth grade had recently read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.)

As Carol tells it, “One of [my daughter’s] best friends had received a threatening message a month earlier from the same phone number, and that girl blew it off.” Now, there was a second message.

As Carol and her daughter tried to figure out who sent the message, Carol learned of something very troubling. For a couple of months, a boy had been targeting her daughter at lunch, telling her every day that Hitler is great. “And my daughter would argue with him. And he would come back and do it again.” She also didn’t know that their daughter had spoken to a teacher about the lunchtime bully, who advised her to go to the principal. The daughter did not go to the principal, and the teacher unfortunately did not follow up. Naturally, the family suspected that this student also sent the text message.

With the text message as proof, Carol notified the school counselor, who brought in the principal and assistant principal. On the advice of a friend and law enforcement professional, they also notified the local police and the FBI. The school figured out that the message was from someone else entirely! So really, Carol’s daughter was the target of antisemitic activity from two people. The student who sent the text message was suspended for three days, and her parents called Carol to apologize. The student who was glorifying Hitler was removed from the lunchroom but stayed in classes with Carol’s daughter.

It was almost June. At eighth grade graduation, each student gets a few slides — with a baby picture, a recent picture, and a quote of their choosing. A few days before graduation, Carol’s daughter came home and said that she had been told that the lunchroom bully had submitted graduation slides with a quote from Andrew Tate (self-professed misogynist, currently charged with rape and human trafficking) and soliciting a specific teacher (“Come with me this summer and I’ll show you a good time.”) Carol let the school administration know about that and made it clear: “I do not want this kid at the dance, at field day, or at graduation. He is bullying my kid.” At that point — but only at that point — did the schools decide to suspend the lunchroom bully. He was still allowed to go to graduation.

The Ullmann family’s experience was one of a few precipitating events that caused the newly-formed Jewish Community Relations Council to think about creating a Parent Advisory Committee.

There were about 25 people in the room at the meeting, primarily with children attending Ann Arbor schools, but also from other school districts and private schools. The majority of parents there had kids in middle school or high school. There were a wide range of responses and experiences. In my group, the experiences that individuals had with antisemitic attacks were less threatening or had been appropriately handled (and largely fell into the “ignorance” bucket), but in some of the other groups, people described much more troubling incidents. In some cases, parents and kids had ignored the comments — and in others, parents had tried to get support from the schools — sometimes with success, and sometimes without it.

As one might expect for a first gathering like this, there were a wide range of opinions and perhaps more questions than answers. At what point should we react? How should we react? What, exactly, is a parent to do? Especially when, as one parent said, “Not every kid wants a threat elevated.” Another parent agreed, saying “The kids don’t want to report everything. A lot of times things take place in a joking context.” This parent then noted that although antisemitism is certainly one of the many forms of ethnic/racial intimidation, the fact that most Jews present as white can require a more nuanced understanding of how different forms of bigotry and oppression operate. That led another parent to suggest that — at least in Ann Arbor — getting involved with Ann Arbor School Parents Intent on Racial Equity (AASPIRE) could be helpful.

Many of the groups ended up talking about the role of social media. Whether it’s a meme with antisemitic undertones (think: stereotypically Jewish moneylenders, or a meme with a swastika), or a non-Jewish friend texting a Jewish friend and using an anti-Jewish slur, parents reported that their kids’ responses varied, and should be taken into account. And in some cases, the kids say, “Oh, J. is just joking around, it’s no big deal.” In other cases, the student doesn’t realize that what their friend is sharing is actually antisemitic.

It’s easy to say that K–12 staff and students should be educated about Judaism and antisemitism, but it’s hard to do that work, and a lot of questions came up: How do you get these items into an already-packed school curriculum? Who should be educated? Jewish children and parents, or the broader community? What should be the focus of that education? In Washtenaw County, there are some schools with large numbers of Jewish kids, and others where there are just a handful, or even none. In different schools, the actions might look different. Many parents felt that it was very important to teach Jewish kids to recognize what antisemitism is and to teach them how to speak up and self-advocate.

Another big question was: What should be the role of Jewish students themselves in addressing antisemitism in the schools? Some parents felt that students are the experts of their own lives, and that students should be involved in crafting and designing any activities. Others felt that students wouldn’t be interested.

And then of course, there was the question of crime and punishment. In many schools, suspension is the answer to bullying and antisemitic/racist remarks. One parent said, “Suspension does nothing. Three days and it’s over. We need restorative justice.” On the other hand, another parent countered, “Restorative justice takes a lot of training and skills.” It also requires the students and families to be willing to participate. At the end of her family’s ordeal, Carol said she wasn’t sure she would have the “emotional bandwidth” to do that.

So, what next?

The Federation is trying to get a better idea of what kinds of threats/provocations are occurring. There will shortly be a form on their web page where you can report incidents — and they can be reported anonymously, if you prefer. The JCRC is planning follow-up activities as well.

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