(June 20, 2018 / JNS) At Carlmont High School in Belmont, Calif., students were asked to write positive messages in chalk on the pavement, but someone drew a giant swastika underneath the message “Toasted Jew.” What did the school administration do to address this alarming situation on campus? Absolutely nothing.
When it comes to the messages high school students hear about Jews and Israel in the news, on social media and in school, far too many have lost the ability to differentiate between good and evil, and between free speech and hate speech. The result? In many corners of American society, blatant anti-Semitism no longer generates much-deserved public outrage.
The Carlmont incident brought me back to my childhood in the former Soviet Union, where I was indoctrinated with propaganda—some of it anti-Semitic. I grew up under communism, believing in the USSR’s vision for a better, fairer world, free from class struggles.
Later, I learned that this was all doublespeak. It was part of the Soviets’ systematic implementation of bigoted restrictions—like anti-Semitic policies that prevented Jews from attending university, practicing even the most basic parts of our religion or immigrating to our homeland of Israel. But I held on—and still hold on—to the belief that Jews must fight to be treated fairly.
When I came to the Bay Area in the 1990s, I did not expect to find the same sort of anti-Semitism that I encountered in my youth. But as movements that demonize Israel have grown, I have seen the same kind of hateful speech against Jews spread in the United States. I knew that this was a fight I would have to join—that the Jewish people must be empowered to demand the same dignity and rights as all other peoples. I embraced Zionism, and committed myself to spreading justice by promoting and educating people about that movement.
Zionism demands that Jews are seen as worthy of natural rights. It asserts that Jews do not deserve to be treated as second-class citizens, to face pogroms, to be murdered or be hated for being Jewish. Zionism affirms that Jewish people deserve to be free, determining our own fate and future.
Sadly, as I have repeatedly seen, anti-Zionists twist notions of justice and social justice to actively exclude Jews and work against Jewish rights. My experiences in the former Soviet Union made me finely attuned to propaganda. Anti-Zionists are not held accountable to the same standards of humanity and decency they claim to demand, enabling them to reinforce anti-Semitic canards.
This is how anti-Semitic incidents get swept under the rug. In recent years, a wave of hate targeting Jews and Israel on college campuses has generated significant attention, but these kinds of incidents have also become increasingly prevalent in high schools as well. Someone drew a Nazi flag covered in swastikas with the caption “Jews are Evil” at Alameda High School in the East Bay. At Westmont High School in San Jose, somebody drew a swastika in the bathroom next to a Star of David, with the words “f*** them all” written underneath. At Gunn High School in Palo Alto, in an “Introduction to World Religions” class on the first day of school, the teacher introduced Judaism by saying: “Jews didn’t really do anything productive over the course of their existence. They mostly just wandered the desert killing their own babies.”
Anti-Semitism is a unique form of hatred that requires a direct and immediate response, with direct education that specifically addresses anti-Semitism. Our students must learn how to recognize anti-Semitism, whether it is a swastika or a history lesson in which Israel is called an “apartheid state.” We must encourage them to stand up to students who tell anti-Semitic jokes. We need to support them in confronting teachers and authority figures who attempt to erase Israel’s existence or Jewish history.
Young Jews need to learn their people’s history, in addition to the political realities of the present, in order to be prepared to tackle anti-Semitism. They need to be empowered to fight for themselves.
That is why Club Z—the Zionist youth movement I founded—is desperately needed. We equip high school students with the education to become experts on Israel and to serve as effective leaders in their communities, who will ensure that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism do not get a free pass.
I see the impact on teenagers’ self-confidence each year at the Youth Zionist Leadership Forum, Club Z’s annual national conference. At panels, workshops and social events, they build on the knowledge that they develop at the Club Z Institute, which offers comprehensive and nuanced Israel education, and provides historical context to modern-day headlines. Throughout the year, our student-leadership program, the Club Z Teen Board, empowers students with practical skills and opportunities to direct their passion for Israel and the Jewish community into action. And we continually engage our students after they graduate our program, while providing tactical and financial support for pro-Israel activism throughout their college education.
The Carlmont incident is just one symptom of an age-old disease. The treatment is equipping our students with the knowledge and tools they need to combat anti-Semitism. The time to start cultivating young Zionist leaders is now.
Masha Merkulova is the founder and executive director of Club Z.