Growing up a Jew in a community with a population less than 5% Jewish was not outrageously difficult. While I found myself in various, small altercations involving religion, I often found these incidents occurred as a result of lack of understanding of the beliefs and values of the Jewish faith. These misunderstandings almost always turned into learning opportunities for me and my peers as we discovered more about our different backgrounds.
As I grew older, however, and studied religion in school, my tolerance for these incidents dwindled as my expectations that my peers would have better knowledge of my faith increased.
This winter saw many incidents of anti-Semitism and hate speech in our community and other communities in the area. While I was deeply disturbed by the lack of knowledge perpetrators of anti-Semitism had for my religion, I was even more disturbed by the reactions to these incidents. I saw hateful social media posts receive likes and encouraging comments, and students using anti-Semitic and hateful language get a laughing response from their peers. While I am all for joking around, I question whether this behavior is necessary.
Comedians use of hate-oriented speech in their performances complicates this issue. While comedians use these statements for far different purposes, individuals lacking knowledge on race and religion begin to mix these satirical statements with the serious statements made by politicians and in turn gain the understanding that it is okay to make similar comments. In conjunction with the events currently taking place in Israel, I believe this climate of off-the-cuff remarks stimulates a causal anti-Semitic mentality.
The Anti-Defamation League reported that this year in New England alone there have been 56 reported acts of anti-Semitism. This can compare to the 61 acts reported in all of 2015.
This year in Massachusetts alone, hateful graffiti and swastikas were painted on schools in Newton, Swampscott and Brandeis University; anti-Semitic fliers have been handed out at University of Massachusetts Amherst; A former Israeli foreign minister was harassed in a lecture at Harvard University; The words “Merry Christmas” were written on a temple in Beverly; Newton North Fans were taunted at a Catholic memorial by the cheer “you killed Jesus”; and the various other small incidents of anti-Semitism in our community and communities around us.
Why the spike in anti-Semitic behavior now? Here in Massachusetts? Why in 2016?
Certainly today’s political climate doesn’t help. Political figures have been promoting the marginalization of ethnic and racial groups to further their agendas. Through this promotion, leaders have allowed individuals to think that it’s socially acceptable to make comments promoting their own racial and ethnic agendas.
In addition, individuals both here at school and in the larger world have been passive in their responses to hate speech. This passive behavior gives the impression to perpetrators of anti-Semitism that what they are doing or saying is okay and can encourage others to act out the same way.
While there has been a rise in this disgusting behavior, opposing groups are working to reverse this climate. In our own school, Student Congress brought this issue to School Committee after a member expressed concerns that incidents of hate speech could not be punished under the current policy, which did not prohibit generalized offensive speech or actions that did not target a specific individual.
School Committee is currently updating its Anti-Discrimination Policy. The current policy, although quite detailed, only prohibits student-to-student harassment where there is a clear target of an offensive action. Fortunately, School Committee will be adopting a policy aimed at prohibiting actions or statements that create a hostile learning environment for students, even if no individual is specifically targeted for harassment.
Administrators in our own community have countered these incidents with a “no tolerance” policy, that promises to deal with all cases of hate speech in a serious manner. Regardless of the specific punishment for an offender, they guarantee it will involve a cultural proficiency training and education on why hate speech of all sorts is completely unacceptable.
These are important steps forward, however it is unfortunate that the only means of progress comes from the threat of punishment. Hateful language directed against an individual or a group of individuals is wrong. Students need to take the initiative to recognize that anti-Semitic speech is inappropriate and undeserving of a laughing remark and speak up. As Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”