Start Right Now:  The critical role of teachers as upstanders, not bystanders, in the face of antisemitism in the classroom

By Melanie Ralph

Last week, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet fronted the media to apologise for wearing a Nazi costume to his 21st birthday party 20 years ago in 2003. Calling it a “terrible, terrible mistake,” the premier’s “genuine hope” is that “good will come of this.” 

Whether you are forgiving enough to view his action as the cringey mistake of a privileged schoolboy, or you consider it to be something more sinister, in the vein of many other documented antisemitic scandals by Young Liberals, the reality is that antisemitism is far from uncommon in Australia. 

We’ve seen Jewish graves vandalised.  This month, residents in some of Brisbane’s “trendiest suburbs” have found pro-Nazi flyers in their letterboxes. Soccer matches have been overshadowed by spectators chanting fascist songs, displaying symbols associated with the Ustaše, and giving Hitler salutes.  And last year, Kanye West’s harmful antisemitic tirade fanned the flames of prominent conspiracy theorists, extremist groups and antisemitic influencers around the world. 

In a report by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), 368 antisemitic incidents were logged between October 2018 and September 2019, including sickening cases of harassment, abusive emails, graffiti, assault, and arson.  Clearly, genocide scholar and survivor advocate Nikki Marczak is right to say that “antisemitism never disappears completely. Depending on the conditions, it either lies dormant or rises to the surface.” 

There has also been an increase of antisemitic behaviour in schools, with reports of rocks painted with swastikas being thrown into a Jewish school in Sydney, and cases such as when “a Jewish student at a Sydney high school was told by another student that he would go back in time and become Hitler to “hunt down his family and stop the bloodline”.” According to Marczak, “The rise of schoolyard antisemitism is the result of an environment that we, adults, are allowing to flourish.” 

Away from the media circus and the commentary on high profile cases, the day-to-day reality of Jewish students can be horrifying if teachers or school leaders do not act.  For instance, Marczak describes an incident in a Grade 10 history class on the Holocaust, documented by ECAJ, during which a student called out that “the Jews deserved it anyway.” Sadly, in this case, it was reported that “the teacher did not reply, either to educate or reprimand.” 

Part of Perrottet’s apology was an emphasis on the importance of education in “raising awareness of the atrocities that have occurred in the past.”  But whose responsibility is it to “raise awareness”?  It is hard to fathom how the Premier did not know how hurtful his actions were at the time – one assumes a pricey private school education would include Holocaust history – and his own parents ‘raised awareness’ about the “gravity of his actions” by apparently reprimanding him the day after the party. 

But what use is it the day after?  Did no one at the party have ‘awareness’ nor the courage to stand up, educate, or reprimand?

My hope is that this horrible circumstance strengthens the commitment of teachers to challenge antisemitism and all forms of racism in the classroom, no matter how minor it may seem, because small instances can lead to worse.

As Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger writes, antisemitism matters “to Jews and non-Jews alike” because it “smells, it rots the body politic, it leads to worse, and it renders rational thought incapable in the face of an ineluctable, active theory of why ‘they’ are to blame. It destroys normal, rational, evidence-based thought.”

Those who are not at the coal face of teaching often forget the day-to-day social complexities of a classroom.  The attitudes and beliefs of young people are influenced by social issues, pop culture, online trends, memes, politics, religion, social media, cultural heritage, peers, their own and their family’s values and so on.  I know from experience that any lesson, at any time, can be interrupted by antisemitic or racist views, or by innocent, well-meaning questions that relate to the world around us. 

For instance, a student once asked “Miss? What’s blackface?” in a Year 10 English class the morning after Donald Glover’s brilliant video for ‘This is America’ was released, a video that Time Magazine notes is “laden with metaphors about race and gun violence in America.” 

The classroom was buzzing.  Everyone had seen the video.  I decided to briefly pause our Romeo and Juliet lesson and ask, “Does anyone want to try and answer that question if they know something?”  I usually will gauge what students might already know and go from there.  No hands went up. 

“Do you…want to know a little bit about this?”  I asked tentatively.

“Yes!”  they cried (dare I say with a little more enthusiasm than I noticed for Romeo and Juliet). 

I had no time for preparation, but because of the student’s genuine curiosity and the shared interest of the class, I knew that this could be one of those rare and beautiful moments of spontaneous and valuable learning; a moment where a young person has decided to ask a trusted adult instead of just Googling it. 

So, we watched an incredible explainer video by Insider and paused it throughout to discuss.  I did my best to answer questions using my own prior knowledge of the topic, but I also used the internet to fact check some basics.  We talked about the harm historically and even in contemporary instances, too, of blackface that they or I knew about.  After about 15 minutes, I gently said, “Great discussion everyone. I’m so pleased you have an interest in this topic – keep on reading and learning, and most importantly, keep caring!” 

And then there were audible groans as I told them to open to Act 3, scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. 

Please note:  it is perfectly reasonable for a teacher to park an idea, commend the interest of students, and come back to it at a time that suits – I was lucky to know enough in this case to proceed on the fly.  Sometimes these moments are the result of genuine curiosity, but other times it can be the result of discriminatory acts – whether deliberate or unintentional.  In all cases, it is critical that students see teachers as upstanders, not bystanders, who are never too busy to act.

Once, I reported a swastika had been carved into a tree trunk at the entrance of our school.  I watched on as a maintenance team member used a power sander to sand it off.  I reported a swastika that had been etched into a cork display board, and I watched on as a maintenance team member removed the board entirely.  On these occasions, I didn’t know who the perpetrator was, so although I could not speak directly with the culprit, I decided I would take five to ten minutes in all my classes to express my disappointment in seeing this in the school and to ensure students actually knew some facts about this symbol of hate. 

This information is critical, because according to a survey investigating holocaust knowledge and awareness in Australia by The Gandel Foundation, “30% of millennials have little to no knowledge compared to 15% of boomers,” and shockingly, The Washington Post reports that “two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is.”

Although two thirds of Australians (66%) and 93% of Americans agree that Holocaust education should be compulsory for schools, we can’t heap the burden of responsibility on history teachers alone.  Here in Australia, Deb Hull, Executive officer of the History Teachers’ Association, points out that “history becomes an elective subject at most schools after year 9” and “until history is appropriately valued and resourced by governments, school systems and schools, there are going to be limits to what history teachers can do.”

Given the limitations of the history classroom, it’s imperative that parents have meaningful conversations with their children about human rights and the dangers of stereotypes and prejudice, and that at school, all teachers value their unique opportunity to help students admit to and learn from their mistakes and help them to understand antisemitism in a way that not only educates but sends a strong message that it will not be tolerated. 

I can’t describe the hurt I felt when I looked up in my own classroom to see a huge swastika on the whiteboard. It was a relaxing Friday afternoon Year 11 Drama class, and I had watched as students enjoyed a game of hangman on the whiteboard after finishing their work.  The game morphed into a group mural drawing activity with the addition of my set of coloured whiteboard markers. 

“Who drew that?”  I demanded.

Silence.

The Friday ‘good vibes’ were over.  Students holding whiteboard markers looked sheepishly from one to another.  No one was used to seeing Ms Ralph mad.  But I was not just mad, I was serious. 

Watching their eyes all land on me, I said, “If you do not have the courage to own up to your behaviour, let me explain some things to the whole class while I have your attention.”  Somehow, despite my own bubbling hurt, I did not want to miss a teachable moment in which 26 students, rather than just one, could learn about this symbol.  It’s important to speak calmly and firmly, and despite one’s rage, to not let that detract from the learning that can occur in these moments.  Knowing some history helps, but one must speak from the heart, too. 

I reminded students that Adolf Hitler adopted the swastika as the primary symbol for the Nazi Party and that it is viewed as a hate symbol.  I reminded them of the Nazi belief that German’s were ‘racially superior’ and of the state-sponsored persecution and murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children.  I reminded them that other persecuted groups included people with disabilities, gay men, Roma (Gypsies), as well as some Slavic peoples (especially Poles and Russians).  I informed them that the symbol is not only hurtful and hateful, but that thankfully Queensland has followed Victoria in banning the symbol.  

“Perhaps you didn’t know any of this…” I said to silent, blinking faces.  They were frozen by my palpable hurt.  “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.  But, if you did know this and chose to draw that symbol, I am deeply hurt, shocked and disappointed.  Erase it now.”

Someone erased it…and somewhat awkwardly, our class resumed.  The minutes till 3pm crept heavily.    

My response to this incident was informed by not only the values of my school, but by my own sense of justice and my personal interest in human rights and Holocaust history.  It was also informed by my experience working at King David High School, a Jewish school in Vancouver, Canada.  Though I am not Jewish, I was embraced by the community over my three years working there.  I was honoured to experience a school that was alive with warmth, culture, and tradition.  I met Holocaust survivors and learned so much from my Jewish colleagues, as well as from students and their families. 

King David is a gorgeous, state-of-the-art facility, but I was also aware of the security measures in place that I had not experienced in any other school.  For instance, surveillance cameras, an elaborate lock and security system, and the shatter-resistant glass were daily reminders of the precautions that are taken in Jewish schools and community spaces due to the real threat of violence. 

A week after the incident in the Drama class, a student voluntarily stayed behind after class.  It was Ben*.  Mature, intelligent, kind-hearted, Ben.

“What’s up Ben, are you OK?”

Looking me in the eyes, he took a breath for courage and said, “I drew the swastika.  I’ve thought about it all week and feel terrible.  I spoke to my parents about it.  I have Polish grandparents who were persecuted in the war and I have no idea why I drew it. I’m so, so sorry.” 

Astonished, I said, “Thank you.  Well done.  This couldn’t have been easy.”  We both had tears in our eyes.  I forgave him.  He learned.  We moved on.  “Thanks Miss,” he said.  “See you tomorrow, Ben.”

Like Ben, it’s possible Dominic Perrottet is confused about his own motivation for wearing a Nazi uniform as a costume.  Was it for laughs?  Was it for shock-value?  Does it matter?  Rabbi Benjamin Elton from the Great Synagogue in Sydney said in response to the Perrottet incident that “in the Jewish tradition, we believe in repentance, which is admitting what one did, seeing it was wrong, committing not to do it again.”

In the case of my student, Ben, I knew this had been achieved. 

These moments are significant because Dr. Donna-Lee Frieze says that when a person cares about the Holocaust, they are more likely to care about other issues as well, and this is supported by the findings in the Gandel survey, which found that “higher levels of Holocaust awareness were associated with warmer feelings towards Jewish people and other minorities, asylum seekers, and First Nations peoples.” 

While one of the eight recommendations of the Gandel Survey is to support teachers with ongoing “accredited professional development” relating to the Holocaust, teachers know not to hold their breaths waiting for a magical unicorn of nation-wide, government supported Holocaust history PD (this would be amazing and I hope it’s coming).  But because instances of antisemitism can so often occur on the fly, in the meantime it’s important that we build our own knowledge and awareness in order to appropriately respond. 

For those whose history is a little rusty, start by brushing up on some basic introductory facts about the Holocaust, in order to be prepared for teachable moments.  Consider also the easy, go-to bank of resources for teachers developed in Victoria, who were the first state to make Holocaust education mandatory in their curriculum (although it is in the National Curriculum, its implementation varies across the country and in schools). 

Consider engaging with or donating to the amazing team at Courage to Care, an organization who run a travelling exhibition, together with an integrated education program for schools and staff. 

Resources on the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) website are fantastic, too; they even include a section called ‘Table Talk: Family Conversations’ which offers tips and guidance to support families to have meaningful conversations about societal events, because “research shows that dinnertime conversation benefits the health, emotional and academic outcomes for children of all ages.”  (Here’s the link to a Table Talk guide on antisemitism). 

For parents and teachers, the ‘Pyramid of Hate’ illustration from the ADL is a useful way to explain to young people the prevalence of bias, hate and oppression in our society and the way that “unchecked bias can become “normalized” and contribute to a pattern of accepting discrimination, violence and injustice in society.” 

There is also a huge collection of online exhibitions, seminars, courses, and educational materials on the Yad Vashem website, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, which is considered the ultimate source for Holocaust education, documentation, and research.  Yad Vashem also run the long-term professional-development program, called the Gandel Holocaust Studies Program, aimed at training a group of expert Holocaust educators who are active throughout Australia. 

My colleague, history teacher Lauren Hovelroud, participated in this program, which takes place in Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem.  Lauren was also the winner of the 2022 Gandel Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education, which according to JWire, highlights “the work of high school teachers who excel in their efforts to impart Holocaust education and who go well beyond the call of duty in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.” I feel lucky to work with and learn from Lauren.

On the topic of kindness, Anne Frank wrote a short essay titled “Give.”  In it she wrote, “How wonderful it is that no one has to wait, but we can start right now to gradually change the world!” 

If any good is to come of Perrottet’s high-profile error, let it be that it inspires teachers to become even more committed to being upstanders in the classroom in the face of antisemitism, racism, and all forms of discrimination. 

There’s no need to wait.  Start right now. 

Notes:

*Name changed

Note my spelling of antisemitism, it is not hyphened as I saw in some resources in my research.  ADL has an explanation here of the best way to spell the word.   

Lead Illustration from the ODIHR publication “Holocaust Memorial Days: An overview of remembrance and education in the OSCE region” (OSCE)

Copyright © 2023 by Melanie Ralph. 

4 thoughts on “Start Right Now:  The critical role of teachers as upstanders, not bystanders, in the face of antisemitism in the classroom

  1. Hi Melanie. It’s Lu Winters. Russ sent us this article. Thank you so very much for being who you are…a positive, curious, intentional force in this world. You made a difference at king David and you continue to. We miss you 💜

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    1. Lu! What a delight to receive your comment here. I am truly grateful that you’ve read my article and I miss you and the whole team there, too! I feel really lucky to have been a part of the community there and it has stayed with me – always will. Love to you and all there xo

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    1. Rabbi Berger, thank you for your support and for taking the time to read this article. I treasure my time working at KD and it has shaped much of my work since. Best wishes to you and your family.

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