Earlier this year, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in South Carolina grabbed a 12-year-old student by the collar as he was getting up to sharpen his pencil. She dragged him ten feet under a table and said, “Burn Jew. This is what the Nazis did to Jews.”
The boy was obviously traumatized. The teacher was arrested and faced charges of assault and battery and public disorderly conduct. Yet the real crime is that of an authority figure entrusted with guiding students to truth and shielding students from harm — and breaching that trust by transforming into a bully of the ugliest kind.
Who is this teacher?
She is a seasoned educator with 23 years of teaching experience, not an inexperienced beginner.
Now let’s meet another teacher who was also involved in brutalizing a Jewish student, though not as actively as the South Carolina teacher.
This one teaches at a high school in Oslo, Norway. At a school barbecue, one of her Norwegian-born students fire-branded a 16-year old Jewish student by pressing a red-hot coin into the victim’s neck. Was the teacher outraged? Did she rush to the victim’s aid? Did she call the victim’s mother?
Her only response was telling the Norwegian-born attacker, “You’re mad.”
The mother of this Jewish student told Norwegian Broadcasting that school faculty also failed to intervene after her son received death threats and was called “Jewish Pig” and “Jewish Satan.”
These are hate crimes. And when the teacher either commits the crime herself or puts her seal of approval on it, she’s telling her charges that it’s cool to hate Jews.
And for a young Jewish victim, perhaps what stings most about anti-Semitic bullying in the classroom isn’t the clumsy action of a hateful kid but rather the adult authority figure’s consent of it.
I’m speaking from experience.
When I was in junior high school in the late 1970s, anti-Semitism in public schools was rare. But I happened to attend a school that happened to have some grandchildren of anti-Semitic German and Scandinavian immigrants who happened to bring their Jew-hatred with them to America. And in this school with hundreds of students, I was one of a very small handful of Jews.
It was in shop class where I stood out. I was the Jewish kid who would much rather play the saxophone than work a metal press, and I was surrounded by burly kids whose fathers taught them to replace mufflers and fix kitchen sinks by the time they were three.
As I was struggling with some sheet metal, a couple of kids accosted me and accused me of “killing Jesus.” More kids joined until it turned into a mob-like situation. The shop teacher saw and heard what was going on, but allowed the situation to escalate; he pretended to be busy with papers on his desk.
And that stung more than a bunch of stupid Jew-hating kids acting stupidly. I felt it was that teacher’s job to protect his students, help make them feel safe and act on the side of common decency — which he didn’t.
That same year, the NBC television network aired the four-part mini-series, Holocaust. The day after the first installment, I came to school and saw that a swastika was engraved on my locker. I went to get the janitor to remove it; it took him a couple of days to get around to it—and when he finally did, he only put one thin coat of paint on it so it could still be seen.
That stung more than the swastika being etched onto my locker in the first place.
The reality is that when school authority figures turn on Jewish kids, it’s a bigger wake-up call than if just the classmates themselves are the bullies.
And aside from being a wake-up call, it also illustrates the three principles of emuna: 1) everything’s from Hashem, 2) everything Hashem does is for the very best and 3) everything is for a purpose.
For me, the anti-Semitism I encountered at school highlighted the fact that no matter how assimilated I was — I ate the same cafeteria food as everyone else, dressed the same as them, listened to the same music as them, thought I was one of them — their hate was a much-needed reminder that I was not one of them. Their hate helped me embrace my Jewish identity. And with a strong Jewish identity, I eventually yearned to discover what Judaism is really about and eventually became Torah observant, making my life more fulfilled and satisfied in ways I could never imagine.
And for that I’m very grateful.