At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, The Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee launched a local antisemitism reporting form in an ongoing effort to assist families and community members in addressing and responding to incidents of antisemitism, specifically those that occur in school settings.* We have already received eight reports representing three different school districts, with incidents at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. These reports have a consistent theme in which the Jewish student is confronted by a classmate with some form of Nazi imagery, Heil Hitler salute, swastikas drawn on desks, and other Nazi related threats and harassment.
While we cannot accept anonymous reports, the form does allow students or parents to submit a form simply for data collection without requesting any specific action or follow up to the incident. So far, most reports have requested our assistance in approaching the school to address the incident in a productive and effective way. Different school districts have different policies and take different approaches to addressing these situations, and for student privacy concerns, we are not always privy to the specific action taken by the school to hold the student accountable. The response must also consider what is age appropriate for the situation. An incident at the elementary school level is handled differently than an incident at the high school level.
Many elected officials have wittingly or unwittingly fed this use of Nazi imagery in the public sphere by continuing to use it in relationship to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Conflating health and safety protocols with the horror of Nazi medical experiments may not be intentionally antisemitic, but the impact does seem to embolden the use of this imagery in disturbing ways that can very easily slide into deliberate antisemitic activity.
At Brentwood High School, a group of Jewish students have taken a proactive, positive, and successful approach to helping their classmates understand more about Judaism in the hope that education will minimize negative actions. They organized a “Jewish Club” which meets on school grounds during lunch period open to all students. The group has become so popular that they outgrew the original classroom meeting space and had to move to a larger gathering point. This innovative approach highlights how student leaders can find creative solutions to a challenging situation.
Jewish Federations of North America recently launched the Shine a Light campaign to engage everyone in the effort to address antisemitism. Hatred of Jews is not solely a Jewish problem. Antisemitism is a sign of an intolerant society and ignoring it grants society a broader license to hate. All individuals should care about antisemitism in order to build a world that is more compassionate, educated, and committed to the value of human dignity. Making hatred of Jews socially unacceptable requires Jewish allies to be invested in creating a more compassionate and caring community. Information about the campaign can be found at www.shinealighton.com
Jews have faced enemies and challenges throughout our history, and still we survive. As we enter the celebration of Hanukah, the story reminds us that though the Temple was destroyed, Jewish hope was not destroyed. We lost the building, but we keep the story, the memory and the light. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks taught, “So as you light the Chanukah candles remember this. The Jewish people kept the hope alive, and the hope kept the Jewish people alive. We are the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.”
*The form is found on the Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee website. For information, please contact Deborah Oleshansky, firstname.lastname@example.org