Just kids being kids.” That’s what one grandparent said after learning that students at a middle school in Naples, Fla., last month staged “Kick a Jew Day.”
“Not anti-Semitic behavior at all.” That’s what the principal of a middle school in a St. Louis suburb said last year about students who took part in “Hit a Jew Day.”
Making excuses for anti-Semitism is bad enough.
Slap-on-the-wrist punishments are even worse.
The 10 Florida students who reveled in kicking Jews were given what the school described as “one day in-school suspensions” and conferences with their parents. The St. Louis students likewise received only brief suspensions, and other students who taunted Jewish children and encouraged the “hitters” were not punished at all.
Perhaps the school officials who chose to mete out such ultra-lenient penalties need a history lesson. A little-known episode that took place in New York City in early 1944 might provide some useful guidance.
In February 1944, five students from Andrew Jackson High School, in Queens, were caught painting anti-Semitic slogans in the nearby town of Queens Village.
Principal Ralph Haller, who happened to be German-American, faced a dilemma. Technically, he had no jurisdiction over what students did outside school grounds. But he understood the moral importance of going beyond the letter of the law to find a way to punish the attackers and send a message to potential anti-Semitic vandals everywhere. Where there was a will, there was a way. Searching the rulebooks, Haller found he was permitted to prevent a student from graduating if he or she demonstrated “poor American citizenship.” At a meeting of parents on Feb. 12, 1944, the principal declared, “I consider such [anti-Semitic] activities totally in contradiction to everything that the America of today or the America which we hope to have tomorrow stands for.” Therefore, he announced, his new policy would be to consider anti-Semitism by definition as un-American, and he would block the graduation of any student involved in anti-Semitic acts.
Haller noted that he had “counseled with many non-Jewish principals” as well as Assistant Superintendent of Schools William Hamm, and found them all in agreement with his choice of punishment. Haller emphasized that as a Protestant and a German-American, “I feel that I have the right and duty to speak out on this issue.”
Haller’s action is all the more impressive when one recalls the extent of anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi sentiment among his fellow German-Americans.
Just five years earlier, more than 20,000 Bund supporters had filled Madison Square Garden for a pro-Hitler rally. And in nearby Suffolk County in the late 1930s, tens of thousands of German-Americans each weekend flocked to Camp Siegfried, a pro-Hitler summer retreat, for Nazi-style parades, propaganda sessions, and rounds of the “Horst Wessel Song” (“When Jewish blood drips from the knife/Then will the German people prosper”).
But Ralph Haller was cut from a different cloth. He stood apart from the crowd – and stood up for justice.
Anti-Semitism can never be completely eliminated. But if school principals impose meaningful penalties on offenders, they will help create an environment in which hatred is regarded as unacceptable and haters are confined to the furthest margins of society.
The same is true in the international arena. All too often, anti-Semitic outbursts by political leaders are greeted with excuses: “He was just saying it for internal consumption” or “He wasn’t referring to all Jews” or “He was angry at Israeli policies.” Such apologetics serve only to mask the offender’s true nature – and encourage him to do it again.
Ralph Haller, in 1944, showed us the way to respond anti-Semitism: swiftly, forcefully, and creatively. Let’s learn from his example.