February 6, 2013
Last year, Jewish high school students from Queens told me, almost as an aside, that classmates roll pennies in front of them. Two years ago, a group of high school students from the Binghamton, N.Y., area told me they were called “cheapie,” had to listen to chants of “Heil Hitler” and “Nazi,” and were kicked and otherwise intimidated on a Facebook-promoted “Kick a Jew Day.”
A recent court case chronicles a similar environment at a Long Island school. A Jewish student (now 16 years old) at Northport High School was addressed not by his name, but by calls of “Jew” or “Hey, Jew” or “You dumb Jew.” He was told: “Jews are disgusting,” “Being Jewish must suck,” “Hitler was a good person.” He was subjected to “jokes,” such as, “How many Jews can fit into a car? Two in the front, three in the back, and 6 million in the ashtray,” and, “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? A pizza doesn’t scream when it goes into the oven.”
The type of anti-Semitism we associate with the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s still occurs in some places in the United States where Jews are a distinct minority, school officials are indifferent and parents do not know what to do. Some parents fear that bringing up the problem might actually make things worse (if the school does not change, and even if it does, they worry that their child might be blamed). The Northport case offers an important cautionary tale.
The high school student was bombarded with anti-Semitic provocations. From time to time, coins would be dropped in his path, and classmates would implore, “Get them, Jew,” or “Pick it up, Jew.”
And on Valentine’s Day 2011, a student walked up to him and read a poem: “Roses are red, violets are blue. My love for you is burning hotter than 100 Jews burning in an oven.”
Going home after school provided little relief. Classmates posted anti-Semitic slurs on social media — in particular on Facebook.
A month before that lovely Valentine’s Day poem, the Jewish student wrote an essay for his English class. It was titled simply “Anti-Semitism.” “It gets lonely in school” he wrote. He recounted how it felt to be greeted not by his name, but by “Hey, Jew,” and, when he sneezed, by “God Bless Jew.” He wrote that he did not know how to reply to the insults, that sometimes he would just stand there in shock.
On May 23, 2012, the Jewish student’s parents — having recently become aware of the extent of the anti-Semitic bullying — met with the principal of the school and the superintendent of the school district. The officials promised, as Judge Arthur Spatt summarized it, to “take steps to protect the [student] from harassment, and to educate the entire student body about the dangers of harassment and bullying.” Nothing that was promised was done.
The harassment escalated. According to the judge, two weeks later “a backpack [was dropped from a vantage point] overlooking the hall the plaintiff was walking in. Then, two other students ran up to [him], held his arms and feet and shook him, saying they wanted him to give them money.” A teacher saw this, but all that was said to the offenders was, “Boys, I can get you in trouble for this.” The next day, the student talked to this teacher, who promised to tell the assistant principal. Nothing happened — not even a follow-up call to the student’s parents.
Bravely, the student resubmitted his essay. His mother called the school about yet another anti-Semitic remark made at track practice. But the school continued to turn a blind eye to the bullying. The student is now attending a different school. His mother sued Northport.
The school filed a motion to dismiss. In December, Spatt ruled that while some of the student’s state claims could not go forward, the federal claims had validity, based on a denial of equal protection as evidenced by the school’s “deliberate indifference” to anti-Semitic harassment, which was “persistent and severe.”
The Northport case is very much like one the American Jewish Committee brought in 2011 regarding the Binghamton high schools. The schools were not responding in any meaningful way when the students or their parents complained, or when the AJC did. Then, at the AJC’s behest, the Department of Education opened a case, which settled when the school district agreed to specific steps to monitor and remedy anti-Semitic bullying.
If you think your child is being bullied, talk to him or her. Ask what is experienced, seen, felt. Anything great happen at school today? Anything bad? Children should be empowered to know that it is not okay for them to be bullied (or from them to be bullies). Seek out expertise about how to talk to your child.
Bring concerns to the school; discuss them with other parents; hold the school accountable. If the school continues to allow your child to suffer anti-Semitic abuse, consider enlisting the help of a lawyer. (Previously, as in the Northport case, some claims may have been lost because of time limitations or other problems.)
Anti-Semitism — like bullying — thrives best in an environment in which authority figures turn a blind eye. This Northport teenager, like most victims of bigotry, will likely remember the hurt for as long as he lives. I hope he recalls, even more strongly, that he helped remove some very harmful blinders.
Kenneth S. Stern is AJC’s director on anti-Semitism and extremism.