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How to talk to kids about antisemitism

A sad but necessary lesson for difficult and challenging times.

Antisemitic “Goyim Defense League” members hang banners over a highway recently in Los Angeles. Photo via Twitter/@StopAntisemites

(RNS) — “Rabbi — this thing about Kanye … ”

That was how the conversation started in my seventh grade class in synagogue a few weeks ago.

It had not been my lesson plan, but it turned out to be a necessary conversation.

How do we talk to kids about antisemitism?

First, let’s stop using the term “antisemitism.” It’s too complicated. (A kid asked me: “What is Semitism?”)

Call it what it is: Jew-hatred.

Or, my own favorite definition of antisemitism: The belief that there’s “something” about the Jews.

The lesson unfolded this way.

We know all about Jew-hatred. We have many holidays about it.

Purim is about a Persian tyrant whose ego got totally twisted, and he decided he wanted to kill the Jews in his state. The Jews, led by Queen Esther and Mordecai, fought back.

Passover is about the Jewish liberation from bondage in Egypt, and from a Pharaoh who hated the ancient Israelites (or, at the very least, enjoyed having them around as guest laborers).

Tisha b’Av, a midsummer fast day, is about how two Jew-hating governments — the Babylonians and then, centuries later, the Romans — destroyed the Temples in Jerusalem, each time sending the Jews into exile from their land.

Hanukkah is much more complicated. There were Jews who wanted to assimilate into Greek culture, who found common cause with a Syrian-Greek tyrant, Antiochus, who was likewise no fan of Jewish teachings, and tried to get rid of those teachings.

As Dara Horn writes in “People Love Dead Jews”:

In the Purim version of antisemitism, exemplified by the Persian genocidal decrees in the biblical Book of Esther, the goal is openly stated and unambiguous: Kill all the Jews. In the Hanukkah version of antisemitism, whose appearances range from the Spanish Inquisition to the Soviet regime, the goal is still to eliminate Jewish civilization. But in the Hanukkah version, this goal could theoretically be accomplished simply by destroying Jewish civilization, while leaving the warm, de-Jewed bodies of its former practitioners intact.

Yom Ha-Shoah is about the ultimate Jew-hatred — the Holocaust.

So, why do they hate us?

A kid raised her hand.

“Because we are different.”

Gotta love that kid, which I do.

“So, kids, how are we different?” (Thus follows a very simple, even simplistic outline. I am not, alas, Deborah Lipstadt. There are many popular and scholarly books on this difficult topic, which occupy an entire shelf in my office, including by Deborah, Bari Weiss, David Nirenberg and David Baddiel.)

    • We had only one God. That seemed weird to other people. Every other people had gods for all sorts of things. 
    • And, to make matters worse, our one God is invisible. No physical descriptions, no pictures and no statues.
    • It gets worse. That God demanded that we act differently than other people. Other ancient peoples did terrible things, like sacrificing their children. We got rid of that. We had to act not like animals, and not entirely like God, but somewhere in between. In the words of the Psalm, we are little lower than the angels.

It gets worse. The things that Jews did were just different from other people.

    • Shabbat! Some Roman writers said that only crazy people would spend 1/7 of their lives resting! A total waste of time!
    • We didn’t eat what other people ate — like pork and shellfish. Or bread on Pesach.
    • Jews taught about ethical behavior. We had the (here, I taught the kids a Yiddish word) chutzpah to suggest that people could be better than their own urges. We had this thing about justice and compassion and taking care of the poor and the stranger. This did not make us popular. Jews were living reminders that people could and should be better. It was sort of like people who scream “Kill the ump!” at baseball games. The Jews were like the umpire of history.
    • Which meant (here the kids groaned at the rabbi dad joke) that Jews were never “safe.”
    • When Christianity started, Jews knew that Jesus wasn’t God, because only God is God. We knew that Jesus wasn’t the messiah, because the world was the same as it always was.
    • And then, they said that we killed Jesus. No. While Jesus was not popular with certain Jewish leaders, it was the Romans who executed him. (In fact, most modern Christians no longer believe this lie about the Jews.)
    • Then, they said crazy things about Jews — like we were in league with the devil; that we had horns; that we were just plain evil. They said we were part of a vast international conspiracy to control the world.

For all this, they set us apart. Sometimes, they made us live in ghettos. Sometimes, they kicked us out of the countries where we lived — like England, France and Spain. Sometimes, instead, they made us convert to Christianity or Islam. Sometimes, they killed us.

In America, Jews had equal rights — from the very beginning. But, even here, there was Jew-hatred. Jews could not live in certain towns. Jews could not go to certain universities. Jews could not work in certain professions. Jews could not join certain clubs. We created our own parallel institutions. We strengthened Jewish life. It worked.

But, back in Europe, the Nazis said that Jews weren’t really human at all. They wanted to exterminate us — a word that you would use with an insect or a rodent.

Jew-hatred continued in communist countries and in the Middle East, like in Iraq, where Jews were executed and kicked out of their homes.

We created Israel — to sustain Jewish life, and to save Jewish lives. After we created the state of Israel, they said that we didn’t deserve it, or that we stole the land, or that we committed genocide against the Arabs who were living there, or ….

“So, Rabbi, if being different is so difficult, what’s the point?”

One of the great Jewish teachers of our time — the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks — taught that Jews should be different — because it teaches everyone that it is OK to be different.

“So, Rabbi, what can we do?”

Fight back.

Fight back against the jokes. Yes, jokes can hurt. Especially about the Holocaust. If someone tells you to “get back in the oven” (a reference to the Holocaust), or if someone throws pennies at you because they imagine that Jews are cheap, don’t tolerate it. Tell a teacher, your coach, your principal and/or your parents. It’s not “just a joke.” It is hate speech, and it is not cool. Ever.

Fight back by teaching others a little bit about Judaism. When someone makes a hateful remark about Jews or Judaism, try this: “I’m surprised to hear you say that. I thought that you were smarter than that. Did you know that Jews … or Judaism … ?” This can sometimes lead to a conversation, and sometimes it actually works. You might even make a friend.

Fight back by not letting your fear win. The haters who are threatening Jewish institutions think that if they scare us, we will stop going to those places. That would be an easy way to hurt Judaism. Keep doing Jewish stuff, and going to Jewish places — especially your synagogue and the JCC. Go now, more than ever. The best response to hatred is love: love of other Jews, love of God, love of Judaism and love of humanity.

Which brings me to …

People who hate Jews usually hate other people as well. I write these words in the shadow of the killings at Club Q in Colorado Springs. Kids should know that the war against being different is not only waged against the Jews, but against LGBTQ people, minorities, etc. This is why Jews have typically felt sympathy and empathy for members of those groups.

If someone hates Jews, they probably hate Black people and/or Muslims, and/or Latinos, and/or LGBTQ people. No one ever hates just one kind of people.

Which means that you have to reach out to other groups, build friendships, build alliances, make allies, be an ally.

Finally, most people don’t hate Jews. Quite the opposite. According to a recent Pew research study, Jews are the most popular religious group in America. Jews are, by and large, quite comfortable in America.

Which must make Jew-haters go nuts.

Yes, we are living in tough times. But we can do this. We have lived through worse. We just have to stick together, keep cool and remember to keep being who we are.

It is not easy, but it is so worth it.

Finally, on Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for those who care about us, and who care about others. This world is sustained by righteous people, many of whom don’t even know who they are.

That this world is not worse than it is is largely the doing of people who do their work quietly, and anonymously, and who stand up against hatred, and simply tell the truth.

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