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Antisemitism at Northwest

Last updated on May 11, 2023

From conspiracies about baby-eating lizards to Kanye West, it seems like Antisemtisim has been making headlines quite a lot these days. As so, I think this is a good time for our community to reflect inward and consider our responses and possible contributions to Antisemitism. 

For those who don’t know what Antisemitism is, it is broadly defined as “hostility to or prejudice against Jewish people.” But there is a much deeper and more complex definition that Issac Meyer helped me outline. Issac is a Jewish-identified faculty who has been a Humanities teacher at Northwest for seven years. He explained that Antisemitism has three distinct origins and ways of showing up in the world’s history. He says, “The first is very much religious prejudice which has a long history in a lot of the world, specifically prejudice against Jews for not accepting a corrected version of monotheism in the form of Christianity or Islam. That prejudice has existed to varying degrees in varying places, there were places in the Christian world that were more or less tolerant of Jews, and in the Islamic world that were more or less tolerant of Jews, but it was always sort of a friction factor and remains one even though religion does not have quite the prominence in the public sphere it used too. 

The second origin has a sort of radicalized bigotry, this is something that goes back about 200 years when Jews began to assimilate more into non-Jewish society. The goal for a lot of Jews trying to assimilate was to escape religious persecution and yet there were many Christians who suspected them of reaming independent of the countries they lived in, and that began to take on a radicalized cast to it, which is actually where the word Antisemitism comes from. It was a German racial thinker (is how he thought of himself) Wilhelm Marr who coined that term to cast Anti-Jewish prejudice as racial. And the final manifestation of Antisemitism is as a conspiracy theory which I think is the most Insidious aspect of Antisemitism because it allows the other prejudices to disguise themselves as somehow fighting back against this dangerous conspiracy.” Although like most forms of bias, it is not always hostile and does not always come from a conscious place of prejudice. Some of the most common Antisemitic beliefs include Jewish people having high IQs or being rich and successful. Oftentimes non-Jewish people don’t understand why saying these things have a negative impact on the Jewish community. These stereotypes seem positive and their perpetuation seems complementary. However, they are not only harmful to Jewish people but those of other marginalized identities as well. Though 61% of Jewish-identified people have not personally experienced Antisemitism at Northwest, there are still 22 % of students who have experienced Antisemitism. The other 17% identified as unsure of if they’ve experienced Antisemitism at Northwest. Either way, 22% of Jewish-identified students say they have or had experienced some form of Antisemitism. It wouldn’t have mattered if there were “only” just 3 students who experienced Antisemitism, it still proves that there is still room for change. 

This article is mostly about those experiences, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which Northwest does a good job of making a comfortable environment for its Jewish students to at least discuss some of the harmful experiences and things they have experienced, hence why I am able to write this article. That being said, here are some of the experiences students have had and some possible solutions to combat these kinds of micro or macro aggressions. 

The Drawings on the Wall 

Back about two years ago, there was a community meeting. Students of the Northwest school crowded into the gym as usual, expecting the typical agenda of fun and announcements. But instead, they were greeted by a conversation about the swastika graffiti being drawn in the bathroom. Many students wrote that they remembered  “swastikas in the bathroom” or “hearing that there was a swastika in the bathroom. I didn’t see it.” This incident, even today, has left a negative impact on many Jewish-identified students at Northwest because no matter what people think a Swastika represents, it is first and foremost a symbol of Antisemitism. This leads me to my next point, which is that many symbols and phrases, less obvious than the Swastika, are linked to Antisemitism. Phrases like “Globalists”, “Elites’” and “lizard people” are usual dog whistles (dog whistles are subtly aimed political messages which are intended for, and can only be understood by, a particular group in this case for Jewish identifying folks). Same with the Iron Cross, 88 (a white supremacist numerical code for “Heil Hitler” since the letter H is the 8th letter in the alphabet 88 = Heil Hitler), and other Alt-right symbols which can be used in order to signal hatred against Jewish people or other marginalized identities. I urge people to be careful about the kinds of things they repeat and to think before they speak. Even if something doesn’t seem Antisemitic, it very often can be and even if you have a good intent there are still many times that people have a negative impact on Jewish-identifying students at this school.

The Jokes

Oftentimes people use humor as a way to cope or just talk about difficult topics. While I am all in favor of that, sometimes it is not executed well, and you might say something like “Hey that’s messed up”, which will usually lead to a conversation like this: “C’mon it’s just a Joke? “It’s not that big of a deal” “People have just gotten too sensitive.” This is a sentiment I have heard time and time again. It echoes through the school, in classrooms, and in meetings at lunch tables. It’s the kind of thing people are hesitant to say but sometimes it will slip out in an offhand comment. This section is for these people. I would like to be clear that the purpose of this is not to make you feel bad or tell you that you are a bad person, but this article is here to help you take accountability for your negative impacts on Jewish students at this school. People are allowed to make mistakes. But there is a caveat to that; If you don’t learn from your mistakes and don’t try to grow from your mistakes, they are no longer mistakes, they are Antisemitic behavioral patterns. Some students who took the survey stated that they have heard “jokes made in reference to Antisemitic caricatures” such as Jews “stealing money”. One reported incident really stood out to me personally read “If this does apply to me, the one that stands out right now is when JSU did a raffle and raised $400 for JFS. When we announced the total raise people kept laughing that ‘of course, they care about money’”. Jokes of this nature are not unusual unfortunately in this society. Antisemitic “jokes” aren’t funny because they really only cause harm. Even if something is a joke, even if you don’t believe it, even if your neighbor is Jewish, your friend, you are still intentionally or unintentionally contributing to an Antisemitic culture that uses the oppression and pain of marginalized people as material for jokes. 

Direct Antisemitism

Ignorance is not an excuse to be disrespectful. Nobody knows everything, and it’s okay to ask questions or look them up yourself but asking them in a rude or insensitive way can be harmful. A Jewish-identified student describes a negative experience they had with classmates. They say, “Lots of students comment on stuff ”Do you speak Jewish? Oh sorry, I meant Yiddish. Yiddish is just so funny”. Another student describes multiple times when they felt uncomfortable or excluded, stating, “being told I look like characters that are anti-semitic tropes, people just lacking knowledge about Jewish traditions in a way that makes me feel awkward, enforced holiday cheer (Christmas – like Jazz band playing Christmas songs or the choir singing carols – when no other holidays are acknowledged).” These are examples of a more direct form of Antisemitism, refusing to give space in our curriculum to teach about Jewish Holidays or making inappropriate comments toward Jewish Identified students is never okay. Northwest School has had a very regular repeat every year of having major projects or important things to do on Jewish holidays, and then just sending out emails apologizing with not that much accountability for the harm they are having on Jewish students. The best way to avoid Antisemitism is to educate yourself. There are multiple ways to do this. First, if there is a Jewish Identified person who wants to educate you whether it’s just because it’s good to learn about minorities or because they are trying to hold you accountable for a antisemitic comment you made, it is always great to hear people’s experiences firsthand. Second, you could go online and learn about the large varied perspectives, cultures, and traditions in the Jewish community. The last way you could learn about another Jewish culture/religion is to go to the Library and check out an educational book. The books that I would recommend are Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, 1989, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn 2021, and Judaism For Dummies by David Blatner and Ted Falcon 2001.

When it comes to antisemitism at the NWS, while there is still a lot of progress to be made, I have confidence in our community to continue to learn and make changes. I am proud to be a part of a school willing to engage in the ideas of thoughtful and insightful processes of self-improvement. Even though we have a lot more work to do as a community to be a warm open space for everyone to feel comfortable. I am happy I have been able to add my contribution, and I hope that this article was helpful in your journey to learning more about the marginalized and minority groups at the Northwest School. I would like to thank Aviva and Dara, the current leaders of JSU (Jewish student union), Isaac Meyer, and all the students who participated in the survey.

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