New year, same fight: MCPS must take meaningful action against rising anti-semitism

By Maddie Kaltman

This fall, the orange spray paint that read “Jews Not Welcome” on Whitman’s school sign might be long gone, but the hate that first wrote it won’t be. Jewish people have endured over two millennia of discrimination and scapegoating throughout history — from blame for the bubonic plague to the “dirtying” of the Aryan race — and it won’t end overnight. 

Antisemitism has become less acceptable in a more progressive society, but it’s only found new forms. The popular assumption has long been that antisemites mostly express subtly through micro-aggressions and stereotypes. With a backdrop of notable celebrity personalities like Kanye “Ye” West publicly reinforcing their prejudice, last year’s local hate further broke the mold with unprecedented numbers of direct acts of hate against the Jewish community. 

In May of 2021 alone, during a point of contention in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the ADL reported 387 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, a significant jump considering that fewer than 220 cases had been reported nationwide in April. 

Following national trends, Montgomery County became a new center for antisemitic hate crimes this past school year. The Montgomery County Police Department reported 48 incidents of anti-Semitic hatred in 2022 — a 55% increase from the previous year. 

Community members found swastikas, antisemitic messages and drawings at Whitman, Pyle, the Bethesda Trolley Trail, Tuckerman Lane and several other schools in the county. There was an assault of a Jewish man at a Gaithersburg grocery store that included yelling “Do it for Kanye,” and the distribution of hateful flyers to community members. Then at Whitman, to cap this year, two debate team members allegedly made a series of antisemitic remarks.  

To limit future incidents of hate in the community, Montgomery County Public Schools officials must take action. Board of Education members must implement required lessons on anti-semitism and Jewish history into curricula and establish an environment that exemplifies an intolerance to hate.

Students consume media habitually, which means they’re consuming antisemitic content possibly daily. From making blatantly anti-Semitic posts on Twitter and Instagram to supporting Adolf Hitler in an online interview with InfoWars host Alex Jones, West announced through social media and interviews his conspiracy theories against Jewish people. Many of his followers, whether they genuinely believe West’s claims or just follow him without thinking, have internalized these beliefs and spread hate in their own communities. 

The individuals who assaulted the Jewish man at the Gaithersburg Giant were allegedly shouting, “Yeah, do it for Kanye.” Without proper education, people of all ages are bound to internalize the preachings of artists like West and unleash hatred onto their communities.

“Actions like what Kanye West did contribute to real-world intimidation and violence against the Jewish community,” said Anti-Defamation League regional director Meredith Weisel. “We have seen this mainstreaming of anti-semitism throughout a lot of different communities.”

Holocaust education is not required in most states — including Maryland. The number of Holocaust survivors left to share their stories is declining, as is the amount of information Americans know about the mass genocide. This lack of education is stark: as of 2020, 62% of teens ages 13-17 did not know that the Holocaust killed six million Jews.  

Students will not understand the gravity and consequences resulting from expressions of anti-semitism without proper Holocaust education. While the horrors of the Holocaust may seem too extreme for elementary and middle school-age children, high school students are mature enough to handle such lessons. 

The horrors of World War II are not the only entry point to valuable remediation. Teachers can weave information about anti-semitism into world history lessons about ancient Egypt, the Crusades and the Russian Revolution — to say nothing of current events. Teaching this information to students as part of the county-wide curriculum will help them realize just how powerful, and continuous hatred can be.

The current MCPS Honors English 10 curriculum recommends books for teachers to use as required readings, including a two novels about the Holocaust, said Honors English 10 teacher Matthew Bruneel. Not all students, however, are required to read and analyze these texts.

Bruneel has his sophomore students read both “Night” by Elie Wiesel and “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, texts that share amazing, true stories of Holocaust survivors.

“I am using the notion of how easy it is for people to brush off small signs of hatred,” Bruneel said, “to really zero in on the slow but steady devolution into hatred that happens in the books.”

When the unit concludes, Bruneel said, mixed feelings among the students are common. “They’re happy to be done with it, but also grateful that they went there,” he said.

Books uniquely humanize even the most unbelievable parts of history that could never be obtained by examining statistics and timelines in an average history class. Long-form texts allow students to visualize the atrocities committed by the Nazis and understand why it is so frightening to see the symbols and slogans of this regime appearing in Montgomery County’s schools and public areas.

Education is a highly effective way to prevent future acts of hate; however, it is not an end-all-be-all solution. Quickly eradicating all forms of anti-semitism in the community is a naive goal, and Montgomery County must be able to effectively respond when instances of hate inevitably arise. Clear and prompt communication between schools and families is a vital first step after an anti-Semitic event has occurred in the community.

Generally, Whitman administrators in consultation with county officials have sent timely emails regarding anti-Semitic incidents such as the vandalism of the school’s sign. But the administrative MCPS team did not release a statement about the hateful comments made by the two debate team members until after the Washington Post published an article about it. Whether the timing was coincidence or not, details about the incident were already circulating the halls and the delay heightened anxieties. 

“What parents desire, and I think students probably too, is to know what the school can and cannot communicate,” said Whitman parent Greg Aronin. “I think MCPS really needs to look at their own communication policies, because it’s not just Whitman.”

Schools should send out information promptly — even if only an acknowledgment while they further investigate — and provide periodic updates to keep families informed as each situation unfolds. Constant communication is by no means a simple task, but it is necessary to limit the spread of misinformation and rumors.

The MCPS school system should also have more transparent policies on how administrators will hold individuals who commit acts of hate accountable. The Student Code of Conduct includes an anti-discrimination statement on the final page — however it does not explicitly mention acts of hate as a form of “Inappropriate or Disruptive Behavior.”

Drawing swastikas on school property is not merely a simple act of vandalism, nor should it be treated as such. Less-informed students may only understand the severity of anti-semitism if it’s tagged as a severe form of misconduct by students in county protocols.

School boards and county officials must take meaningful and lasting action as we begin the school year, before last year’s displays of hate ebb into discriminatory violence. Curricula and student policy must align if MCPS is to show resolve.

“We just don’t have the luxury to sit back and let this anti-semitism to continue to proliferate,” Weisel said. “It’s not just a problem for one side — it’s a problem for everybody.”