Anti-Semitic incidents come in all shapes and sizes. So do the responses to these hateful events.
When swastikas and “heil Hitler” graffiti were scrawled in Pope High School and Lassiter High School in Cobb County during the High Holy Days, the Jewish community stood together, outraged at the initial reaction of the Cobb County Board of Education and several principals, who refrained from identifying the graffiti as anti-Semitic, calling it merely “hate speech.”
More recently, when anti-Semitic language came up during an altercation between two female students at Taylor Road Middle School in Johns Creek, the response by both the school and the surrounding Jewish community was more measured.
According to Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, “it became clear to me that it was a localized incident between two students. It was more personal, rather than a faceless attack, and it was being handled well.”
However, the immediate response from some parents of students at Taylor Road echoed similar reactions in the Jewish community to previous anti-Semitic incidents. These parents wrote a petition stating that “it has been brought to our attention that students at this school are sharing Nazis [sic] symbols and actions against Jewish and Israeli students on a regular basis, on and off-campus, to a point that many parents are considering if this school is safe for our kids.”
In urging members of the Jewish community to sign the petition, the organizers alleged that a Jewish-Israeli girl was physically pushed by another girl and told to “go back to the gas chambers.”
Bernstein told the AJT that it is “important to understand the context. These girls knew each other and were trying to be hurtful. The language escalated and something was captured in writing.” He acknowledged that “when it’s your own child involved, there’s no other way to respond than to take it to heart because you are protecting your child.”
Unlike the Cobb school officials, however, Taylor Road Middle School Principal Kelly Parker quickly wrote an email to the parents of his students:
“As you know, I value transparent communication with our parents and community. Because of this, I wish to inform you of an incident that occurred at our school this week where anti-Semitic and racist speech was used, leading to a physical altercation between two female students. No one was injured physically, and all students involved have received appropriate consequences in accordance with the student code of conduct.
“To say that I am extremely disappointed about this hateful incident is an understatement. I love this school and this community. Racism and anti-Semitic words are damaging and have no place at Taylor Road Middle School. Our school culture is one of inclusion. We embrace the diversity of our community and strive to provide a learning environment that is welcoming for all students. This matter only strengthens our resolve to communicate a message of tolerance.
“Fortunately, we have student and parent diversity committees already in place to address issues just like this one. These groups help promote the diversity we feel is a great value to our school. Please take this opportunity to speak with your child about supporting all members of our school community.”
Still, Bernstein contacted and met with the principal. “I wanted to see how the school was reacting.” He emphasized that “we can’t control what everyone will do. The school responded to the incident with students and parents, and I felt that was the appropriate way to handle it. My congregants felt it was handled well. We must stay vigilant against anti-Semitism, but how the school responds should be the main focus.”
Indeed, in a message to his congregants, Bernstein wrote: “I found the [school’s] response to be strong, proactive and with an understanding of how certain words hurt even beyond the intended targets. While rising anti-Semitism remains a troubling phenomenon and deserves everyone’s full attention, Taylor Road Middle School is an example of a place where words and acts that are hateful toward any person are addressed, and it is made clear that no student will be allowed to hurt others with racist or anti-Semitic language, whatever the circumstance. I hope that those who want to support the work against hatred will also find the school to be an ally and a resource in teaching the fundamental lessons of how to treat each other with kindness, respect and support.”
Fulton County Zone 6 Superintendent Tim Corrigan and Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones confirmed to the AJT that “an incident occurred where anti-Semitic and racist speech was used” and that the “students involved have received appropriate consequences in accordance with the student code of conduct.” They also referred to the student and parent diversity committees that “address issues just like this one,” although they said that they were unable to recall any such incidents in at least the last four years.
Comparing the response of Johns Creek officials to the response of the Cobb County high school principals, Bernstein said, “It’s a very personal and fine line between something being ignored and something being handled appropriately. While anti-Semitism has and tragically will continue to require vigilance and, in some cases, pressure on the schools and districts, I don’t think this incident reflects such an example nor has it been accurately characterized in all quarters.”
- Jan Jaben-Eilon
- Taylor Road Middle School
- Kelly Parker
- Johns Creek Georgia
- Rabbi Michael Bernstein
- Congregation Gesher L'Torah
- Pope High School
- Lassiter High School
- Cobb County
- High Holy Days
- jewish community
- Cobb County Board of Education
- racist speech
- Tim Corrigan
- Cliff Jones