A couple of weeks ago, the school district in which I live announced that anti-Semitic graffiti, in the form of a swastika, was found in a bathroom that is shared by the middle school and high school. Just days later, another swastika was reported, and then another.
The Jewish community organized quickly to address this issue and voice concern. Members of the community were encouraged to attend a school board meeting, and then a town council meeting. Behind the scenes, as the rabbi in town, I juggled various conversations with school stakeholders, Jewish community leaders, public officials, anti-bias volunteer groups, and faith leaders from other houses of worship, all while trying to articulate a clear message and support members of my own synagogue community.
Through this all, here is what I have confirmed: Reporting anti-Semitism should not be a choice. It should be a requirement.
When I say that reporting should be a requirement, I mean this across the board. Schools should notify parents, teachers, and students. Towns should report it to constituents. Teachers should inform principals. Students and their parents should have a safe reporting mechanism when they are targeted by peers or friends. We all are responsible for saying something.
But this is easier said than done. There is a temptation, on many levels, to not share these incidents for various reasons. Reporting anti-Semitism — or any hate crime, for that matter — is difficult because the reporter fears the consequences of the reporting and any related retaliation. No town or school district wants this as part of their reputation. Children who are targets of anti-Semitism fear getting their friends in trouble, or even worse — ending their friendships completely. I’ve spoken with parents whose children have been targets of anti-Semitic bullying and I can tell you that they are truly at a loss as they wrestle with these choices.
But the less we report, the more this behavior becomes acceptable, which is why reporting anti-Semitism should not be a choice. It should be a requirement.
People often shrug this off as careless behavior. Many speculated that “it was probably just some kid who wasn’t thinking, or didn’t know better.” The truth is, even if that was the case, we still need to treat these incidents in a serious manner. We have to report them to the local authorities and notify any relevant stakeholders.
Even if such an act were done in ignorance or even if it were not done maliciously, the impact is significant. One swastika in my town means that on my day off, while I am shopping at Target, everyone stops me in the aisles to share their concerns and seek advice. One swastika means that I don’t get to tuck my kids into bed some nights, because I’m meeting with community leaders and petitioning the school board to address this issue head-on. And that’s just how it affects me, one person. Multiply that impact by the number of residents in our community and beyond.
One swastika instills deep concern in parents, who worry about sending their children to school in a safe environment. One swastika in town leads to children calling their parents to pick them up from school because the pain of the news or discussions around it is too great to bear, and distracts them from learning.
One swastika could put an entire community, justifiably, into an emotional tailspin.
Reporting should be a requirement, and yet the challenge is that our communities are not equipped with support around reporting. We don’t know how to share the message with our constituents. Protocols are not in place about who, how, and when people should be informed. Many teachers are unequipped to handle these conversations, even when incidents happen in front of their eyes. Parents and their children have no idea where to begin.
Therefore, I urge schools, community organizations, and public officials to examine the protocols around reporting all hate crimes, and to involve all stakeholders in the discussion, so there is a deep investment in the process. That would send the strong message that this behavior is demoralizing and unacceptable. Further, everyone needs to understand the legal consequences.
But clearly, reporting these incidents is only the first step. We must use an incident like this to improve our schools and our communities across the board. We must educate our children in and outside of school, and incorporate these lessons into the curriculum. School staff, administration, advisers, and coaches must be trained on how to handle hate crimes.
Further, community leaders need to find mechanisms to educate religious leaders, public officials, and other community members, so the surrounding environment in which students live also sends a message of non-tolerance for these hate crimes.
And let’s not forget the impact that a parent could have on their children, teaching them to lead and act in ways that are welcoming to all.
Finally, what best practices are in place so that the victims will have access to the practical, emotional, and spiritual support that they need?
As we do all this, we must rely on experts in this field, and on professionals who could use lessons about the Holocaust and other historical tragedies rooted in hate crimes to inform how we educate, report, train, and support all of those impacted.
Finally, I urge community leaders to see any efforts to combat these problems as efforts that would benefit from collaboration. In the aftermath of this anti-Semitic occurrence, I experienced the level of mistrust, finger-pointing, and shaming among various leaders, all of whom had the same goal — to condemn the hate and set standards for the future. Perhaps our tone or our anger was behind some of those choices.
But now our responsibility is to channel that anger into methods of creating a safer world for all our children.