After Oct. 7, antisemitism in high schools more subtle, less overt
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After Oct. 7, antisemitism in high schools more subtle, less overt

“It’s no longer you’re just Jewish. Now, you’re Jewish and a Zionist. It’s another reason for people to look at you differently."

“When Is Never Again,” by Naomi Davis. (Photo provided by Naomi Davis)
“When Is Never Again,” by Naomi Davis. (Photo provided by Naomi Davis)

Shauna Maenza is used to overt acts of antisemitism.

The North Allegheny High School senior and BBYO regional vice president is accustomed to the occasional antisemitic comment or joke coming from other students trying to score cheap laughs.

What surprised her, though, has been the recent, more subtle forms of antisemitism.

“Before Oct. 7, the displays of antisemitism were very direct,” she said. “It would be a Hitler salute or a word. Now, it’s so indirect and layered. They don’t directly say, ‘I hate Jews.’ They disguise it, saying things like ‘I hate Israel, I hate Zionists,’ but I think we all know what that means.”

The slurs, Maenza said, used to come from “ignorant white boys”; now they come in political conversations and social media posts.

She cited a recent Israel/Palestine debate in her foreign policy class when she pointed out the degree of the atrocities Hamas committed during its attack on Israel.

“Someone responded, ‘Yes, BUT….’ There shouldn’t be a ‘but,’” Maenza said. “There can be an ‘and,’ but it’s always, ‘Yes, but….’ I don’t think people understand that false equivalency. There’s a group that won’t even talk to any of the Jewish kids in our school.”

Consequently, she feels it’s harder to be seen as a person, she said.

“It’s no longer you’re just Jewish. Now, you’re Jewish and a Zionist,” Maenza continued. “It’s another reason for people to look at you differently. I understand not all Jews are Zionists — although I think a lot of them are — but now the problem is that if you hate Zionists, you hate Jews.”

Some of her peers don’t understand the difference between the broader Jewish community and Israel, she said.

For instance, Maenza recalled that when she discussed the actions of Hamas with another girl, that student’s reaction was to disregard the terrorists’ acts and immediately begin talking about Israel and its actions.

Zionists, Maenza said, tend to center their conversation on Hamas; the other side generalizes all of Israel, not understanding the difference between the Israeli government and the everyday Israeli.

“The difference between Zionists is that they use the word ‘Hamas’ — the government [in Gaza] — whereas the other side tends to generalize all of Israel: ‘All of Israel is doing this’ — it’s not the Israeli government, it’s Israel,” she said.

Antisemitism and ‘politics’
Naomi Davis is a junior at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School (CAPA) who recently completed a class assignment to paint anything about any subject.

Davis’ painting was titled “When Is Never Again” and featured images centering on the Holocaust, the massacre at the Tree of Life building and antisemitism. In the right quarter of the painting, she included a cellphone with the words “Today’s News.” In it, two references were made to the Oct. 7 attack: one listing it as the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, and another about a kosher store that was attacked by pro-Hamas protestors.

The painting made no political statements about the war or Hamas’ actions. In her artist’s statement about the work, Davis said the painting was about antisemitism throughout time.

“The intent is to show that antisemitism is still present today and has never gone away,” she said.

“I felt compelled to paint it because of how I was feeling over these past couple of weeks,” Davis explained. “I thought it was really important to show my classmates, especially.”

Typically, Davis explained, her teacher would have spent class periods walking around and offering feedback to the students as they worked. And while he did that for most of the students, Davis said that she was ignored, which made her feel “uncomfortable and weird.”

“That didn’t stop me from painting it though,” she said.

On the day the project was due, Davis stayed up until 2 a.m. completing the painting and readying it for the usual critique it would receive, not just from the teacher but from her classmates, as well.

“Before we even started the critique, there was a girl that walked up to my painting, took a picture and said, ‘This is going to be interesting. Is Naomi even here?’” Davis said. “She’s one of the very pro-Palestinian people. That got me a little nervous.”

What happened next, though, would leave Davis feeling singled out and ostracized.

“He [the teacher] stood up and made a 2-minute speech about how we’re not going to be talking about politics in this critique, and he went on and on about it,” she said. “Everyone knew he was talking about my painting because other people painted cupcakes and the sky. After he stopped, I just said out loud, ‘My piece is about antisemitism.’ He said, ‘Antisemitism is political.’”

Throughout the class, no one mentioned Davis’ work, not even those whom she described as “good people” but who felt nervous and intimidated.

The teacher, she said, usually ends the period discussing pieces not spoken about during the critique period.

“Mine was one of the only pieces not talked about,” she said. “I was very disappointed.”

Davis was awarded a 100% for the work and was eventually approached by the teacher privately, who asked if she wanted to discuss the painting. She told him how uncomfortable she felt during the class and by his statement that antisemitism is political.

“Because that would mean there are two sides to it,” she said. “He tried to justify himself. He said it was political again.”
Other controversial works have been painted in the class, she said, and have been critiqued and discussed.

That experience left her more nervous and uneasy about expressing her Jewish identity in school.

“I’m scared of what other people are going to say,” she said.

A ‘double standard’
Since Oct. 7, Davis said she has never felt prouder by the Jewish unity that occurred following the Hamas attack and has found outlets away from CAPA, like NCSY.

Rabbi Meir Tabak is the Pittsburgh city director of NCSY, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, a Jewish youth group for teens in grades six through 12 under the auspices of the Orthodox Union.

Tabak said that while the majority of the Jewish teens he works with haven’t been bombarded with antisemitism in high school, “the places there have been issues, though, the issues have been significant.”

Echoing Davis’ experience, Tabak said that there appears to be a double standard at high schools about what is, and isn’t, OK to discuss.

“If you’re on one side and you want to say, ‘From the river to the sea,’ OK, but if you’re on the other side, just don’t talk about it,” he said.

Oct. 7 has brought a fresh crop of worries, Tabak explained, but said that antisemitism in high schools is nothing new. He pointed to the experience of one frustrated student whose current events teacher refused to discuss the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting after Oct. 27, 2018.

“They went to the teacher and said, ‘Can you please discuss this, it’s very personal to me,’ and she sent him to the principal,” Tabak said.

The student said the same thing happened after Oct. 7, when his peers chanted, “From the river to the sea.”

“It’s a very subtle double standard,” Tabak said.

Most teachers, the rabbi said, are “good people” who think they are operating in the best interest of the students.

“If they are shutting down conversations, it might be for the purpose of protecting the students,” he said. “The question is, why do they feel they have to shut the Jewish students down to protect them and not the other side?”

Tabak said he isn’t out to villainize the public school system, which he feels is an important institution. Instead, he believes the best course of action is to have more conversations, sometimes initiated in the classroom by teachers, and not shut down one side.

“We want to support our brothers and cousins, as well,” he said. “That’s all we’re asking for. We’re not looking to shut down the other side. I know it’s a tough political topic and everyone has 15 opinions, but — at the least — students should be able to express their opinions.”

Tabak also believes there should be more safe spaces for Jewish teens, like those created by NCSY and BBYO, to bolster Jewish pride.

That might help students like Davis, who feel less comfortable in public schools than they did before Oct. 7.

“I haven’t seen one person post anything pro-Israeli or talk about anything pro-Israel,” Davis said. “None of the teachers have mentioned it, or anything, about Oct. 7. They haven’t educated anybody about it.

“I’ve seen so many pro-Palestine posts and T-shirts. Things like that have made me feel very alone.”

The Chronicle’s calls to CAPA were not returned before publication. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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