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Summit focuses on rising Jew-hatred in K-12 schools

Primary and secondary schools “are always the first line of defense for any and every issue,” said Josh Kraft, head of the New England Patriots Foundation.

Josh Kraft, president of the New England Patriots Foundation and co-chair of the Hate Crimes Task Force for Massachusetts, speaks during a Lappin Foundation online summit about antisemitism in K-12 schools on April 9, 2024. Source: Screen shot from live feed.
Josh Kraft, president of the New England Patriots Foundation and co-chair of the Hate Crimes Task Force for Massachusetts, speaks during a Lappin Foundation online summit about antisemitism in K-12 schools on April 9, 2024. Source: Screen shot from live feed.

Some 200 people, including educators, students and parents, participated in a Lappin Foundation virtual summit about the national strategy to counter antisemitism in K-12 schools on Tuesday.

Josh Kraft, president of the New England Patriots Foundation and co-chair of the Hate Crimes Task Force for Massachusetts, told attendees that it is “so essential” for elementary, middle and high schools to be “armed and equipped with the tools needed to combat antisemitism.” 

There was a 140% increase in antisemitic attacks against Jewish children in primary and secondary schools in the three months after Oct. 7, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

“The K-12 schools are always the first line of defense for any and every issue, as the teachers are with kids from seven in the morning until late in the afternoon,” said Kraft, whose father is New England Patriots owner and Jewish philanthropist Robert Kraft. “Whatever happens in our society, in our community, infiltrates into our schools.”

Much of the discussion during the hour-long summit addressed the national action plan to combat antisemitism, which the Biden administration unveiled last year, with a course of recommended actions.

The event came just weeks after the Massachusetts Teachers Association held a webinar titled “The struggle against anti-Palestinian racism,” which critics said spread antisemitism and anti-Israel propaganda. (The Lappin Foundation is based in Massachusetts.)

In December, the association’s board had approved plans for the professional development division to create curricular resources on history and current events in “Israel and occupied Palestine,” and days earlier, the board had signed off on a resolution directing its leadership to lobby the White House to “stop funding and sending weapons in support of the Netanyahu government’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

Representing 117,000 members at public schools, colleges and universities, the association wields considerable influence in shaping curricula taught in primary schools, which have seen an uptick in antisemitism.

At Marblehead High School, students received a world cultures handout identifying Jewish claims to “Palestine,” claiming that Abraham’s God instructed him to “move his family to Palestine” and that Moses’s people “finally reached Palestine and settled down” after the Jewish leader died, David Magen, a freshman at the public school, told the summit.

“The summary completely erased the name Israel and Judea,” Magen said. “When I was asked on a homework assignment to answer what is the relationship between Palestine and Judaism, I answered that this handout was filled with historical inaccuracies, antisemitic tropes and that Palestine did not exist in those biblical times.”

“Most importantly, I wrote that there is no relationship between Palestine and Judaism, and in all capital letters, I said, this is antisemitism,” the freshman added.

In a conversation that ran more than an hour with the chair of the school’s history department, Magen discussed the inaccuracies in the handout, he said. The department head assured him that the handout would be scrapped and the curriculum would be updated based on his feedback.

“Unfortunately, not every school in America has teenagers that are able and willing to do the same,” he said of his decision to speak up and, essentially, educate his educators.

The example suggested an instance of the heart of the summit, which sought to provide teachers with tools to teach about Judaism, Israel and Jew-hatred fairly and accurately, and to empower parents and students to fight back against anti-semitic indoctrination.

Wicked increase in Jew-hatred

Peggy Shukur, vice president of the east division of the Anti-Defamation League, offered summit attendees a preview of the ADL’s forthcoming annual report on antisemitic incidents.

“Spoiler alert: Incidents reported in 2023 will represent the highest numbers ever reported to us, with a rise in each of the three categories,” she said. “We track assaults, vandalism, and harassment.”

Shukur, whose region covers the northeastern United States, including Massachusetts, added that the ADL has tracked a nearly 400% increase in antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7.

“Our experience in Massachusetts and New England is no exception,” she said, noting that antisemitic bomb threats, swatting and assault were on the rise in New England even before Oct. 7.

“There were nearly 500 K-12 incidents reported nationally in 2022, and we will see a dramatic rise here, too,” she said.

Previewing the ADL annual report, Shukur said K-12 school incidents include “swastikas scrawled on desks, playgrounds and school buildings; antisemitic images AirDropped to large groups of unwitting students; harassment directed at visibly Jewish students; and teachers saying Jews are rich, powerful and control banks.”

While each Massachusetts school district has oversight over its curriculum under general state guidelines, “unvetted curriculum is being developed, sometimes created through teacher unions or other groups with some kind of ideological agenda, resulting in the existence of curricula that is biased and sometimes antisemitic,” Shukur said.

Affirmative Jewish culture

Shukar recommended that educators hold open conversations with students about Jewish pride and culture—not just about Jew-hatred. 

The ADL prepared a new online program for middle and high school students, which familiarizes them with Jewish culture and identity, “which in turn allows them to recognize antisemitism and challenge it when they see it,” she said.

A workshop for educators helps ensure that “they are prepared when antisemitism reaches the classroom or the school community,” and a 20-minute online, interactive antisemitism mini-course affords them “an overall understanding of antisemitism and the most common antisemitic tropes,” she said. 

Those concerned about rising Jew-hatred in K-12 schools must be “a curriculum watchdog,” to “make sure that the curriculum being used doesn’t inadvertently, or maybe intentionally, perpetuate antisemitic stereotypes or bias,” Shukur added.

That “inadvertent” perpetuation of Jew-hatred may be one of the more important things to tackle in schools, according to Maddie Katzen, co-chair of the foundation’s Lappin Teen Antisemitism Task Force.

A student at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill, Mass., Katzen’s first experience with antisemitism came in fifth grade when two middle-schoolers and a high school freshman dragged their feet along the rubber particles of a field to create a large swastika.

“Because I was so young, I didn’t really understand what was happening and what this attack even meant,” Katzen told summit attendees.

The school worked with a local synagogue, and Katzen credits the rabbi who was brought in to talk to middle and high school students about why the swastika is a hateful symbol in helping her understand and process the situation.

“In the elementary school where I was, I was told the boys who did this didn’t understand what they were doing. But it still hurt Jewish students very much,” she said. “Educating students about antisemitism proactively before something happens may very well prevent something like this from happening in your communities.”

Jeffrey Riley, who served as the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education from 2018 to 2024, told attendees that it’s the wrong approach to hope that things outside one’s control, like when Israel’s war against Hamas will end, will bring about changes.

“The problem of antisemitism is real. I believe it’s something that we can’t get around or wait out,” he said. “It requires that we work together to make sure all of our kids have a better world.”

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