Student’s experience with antisemitism in the public school system
February 5, 2021
Earlier this week, The Omaha World Herald reported that a teacher at Westside Middle School had written a Hitler quote on the board for the quote of the day. When I heard about this, I felt a sense of trauma and pain far worse than I did seeing the shirts that read “Camp Auschwitz” and “Six Million Wasn’t Enough” during the insurrection on Jan. 6. It felt like the antisemitism was happening directly to me, because it had, just a few years earlier.
I’ve been a part of the public education system since elementary school, and went to school a predominately white, Christian district before coming to Central. I can speak from personal experience that this is not an isolated occurrence. In 7th grade, I was retelling a story from Jewish summer camp to a group of friends before class, and before I was done with my story, one of them interjected.
“What’s the difference between a Jew and a boy scout?” he said.
I played along. I remember my voice quivering, dreading what was to come next.
“The boy scout comes back from camp,” he said, chuckling to his friends.
I laughed, feeling a pit form in my stomach, but only for a brief moment.
It’s not like they’re talking about me personally, I thought.
By the time I got to high school, I had forgotten about the antisemitic joke entirely. Mostly because there had been a multitude of others since then, and partly because I really believed it was no big deal.
One day during my sophomore year, I was eating lunch when a boy spotted some change on the ground and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Don’t you want to pick it up?” he asked.
He paused a second.
“Isn’t that what Jews do?”
I laughed once again, as I felt little parts of my Jewish identity being erased.
The comments started to feel more truthful than hurtful. If students were being taught this behavior was acceptable, maybe I was the problem? I started to be more conscious about the money I spent around my peers. Never too much, but never too little. I started to grow more distant from the Jewish community, too. It helped put a wall up between the antisemitism and my personal identity.
I never thought of telling anybody about the incidents I had experienced,
because it did not feel like it was urgent enough for anyone to take notice. I figured that if anything serious were to happen, someone would intervene. I was wrong.
There were five minutes left in my AP Human Geography class and I was scrolling through Instagram when suddenly I got a text.
“Töten die Juden,” it read. Unable to believe what I was reading, I ran it through an online translator. “Kill the Jews,” it said. My hands began to tremble, as if generations of my ancestors were shaking me awake to the severity of the situation.
It took a few weeks, but eventually I made it to a trusted adult’s doorway to explain the torment I had faced. Once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. I told them about how unsafe and powerless I felt in this situation that I had convinced myself was my fault. They sat there, staring at me. When I finished, they told me that’s just how kids are, and I’ll get through it. The room felt small. I felt smaller.
Now, with this new incident of antisemitism that has just arisen, the public education system has a chance to do things differently. It is imperative that students, teachers, and administrators don’t let this go undiscussed because they are scared to be the first ones to discuss it. As a young Jewish woman, not only do I expect a seat at the table in fighting against injustice, but I implore others to start fighting with me.