Rooting antisemitism out of K-12 schools requires proven, bipartisan solutions

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A series of hearings held by the House Education and the Workforce Committee in recent months has appropriately shined a harsh spotlight on the sharp escalation of antisemitism in education settings across the country. 

But as tomorrow’s congressional hearing examining antisemitism specifically in K-12 schools approaches — which will closely examine Montgomery County Public Schools, among other districts — the committee should aim to lower the temperature, not raise it. Lawmakers in both parties should use the hearing to not only deliver bipartisan condemnation of rising antisemitism but also to deliver bipartisan solutions that help schools more effectively address it. 

Having spent approximately 30 years in Jewish community relations and advocacy — including eight years in my current role as associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington — I am horrified by the stunning rise in antisemitic attacks locally and nationally. 

But recent steps from Montgomery County Public Schools and Maryland lawmakers offer glimmers of hope for our area and can serve as a model for other jurisdictions to follow. The committee must consider this entire picture and explore ways Congress can help. A hearing following that blueprint will serve an especially useful purpose. 

The harrowing spike in antisemitism nationwide should concern every American. The Anti-Defamation League documented nearly 9,000 incidents of antisemitism in the United States in 2023, a 140 percent increase over 2022. That includes more than 1,100 incidents in K-12 schools and more than 900 on college and university campuses. 

Every child deserves to be safe at school, but that right is being denied to Jewish students in too many places.  

In my role managing the council’s school-based programming and advocacy, I have seen up close the increasingly frequent and graphic nature of antisemitic incidents in Montgomery County schools. 

The 2022-23 school year alone saw “Jews Not Welcome” on Walt Whitman High School’s entrance sign, routine harassment of Jewish students, widespread graffiti involving Nazi symbols and even a disturbing antisemitic aggression on an elite district debate team. For the first time, children as young as second grade are now victimized by these types of incidents. 

And that was all before Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. Montgomery County Public School leadership’s days-long silence following Hamas’s terrorist attack was deafening as Montgomery County’s American Jewish and Israeli residents reeled in grief, shock and anger. Jewish students have since endured teachers posting horrific antisemitic conspiracy theories, walkouts featuring threatening antisemitic chants and signage, verbal harassment and accusations of being complicit with genocide. 

The committee should call out the school district’s very poor track record in protecting its Jewish students and employees. But focusing solely on failures would be a disservice. Instead, the committee should also highlight how — with the right tools, resources and courageous, focused leadership — school districts can address and prevent antisemitic attacks far more effectively than they do now.  

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington has worked extensively with many Montgomery County Public School District officials who — to their credit — have wanted to learn about why antisemitism occurs, the various forms it takes, and how to meaningfully address it. We have conducted antisemitism training with over 1,500 educators, including a special focus on the district’s restorative justice and mental health teams. 

The number of Montgomery County Public School students participating in programs with Holocaust survivors and their descendants has more than doubled in recent years. The district has revamped its entire hate and bias incident reporting protocols and introduced new elementary and middle school curricula exposing younger students to American Jewish history and the origins of antisemitism. 

Our work is far from complete, but we are seeing the impact of this mindset shift. For instance, when four district teachers posted hateful messages on social media feeds or work email signatures after Oct. 7, district officials immediately recognized the importance of ensuring that they had no further contact with affected students. The teachers were swiftly suspended. Despite tremendous outside pressure for premature reinstatement, the district instead completed its investigations. 

While privacy laws prevent the school district from sharing details — the wall of silence regarding disciplinary processes compromises trust between Jewish parents and schools and could be another area for legislative intervention — the teachers were all reassigned to new schools.

The committee should supplement these efforts by following the lead of recent laws passed in Maryland that provide funding for school trips to museums on the history and culture of oppressed and marginalized communities, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and that require anti-bias training for public school employees. 

The Countering Antisemitism Act is a bicameral and bipartisan bill to further the implementation of the Biden administration’s landmark National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. Among other provisions, the bill would support schools by commissioning a study of K-12 Holocaust education practices and give the Department of Education new tools to address antisemitism at colleges and universities. Committee members should push for passage. 

Addressing school-based antisemitism — like racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination against marginalized groups — is a tremendous undertaking. It requires a painstaking effort to cut through entrenched bureaucracies, uncomfortable conversations with overburdened educators, managing expectations among emotionally exhausted parents and navigating many days where success feels elusive. 

The House committee hearing should reflect that seriousness of purpose by shedding not just heat, but also light. A partisan approach to antisemitism is ultimately self-defeating; if Republicans and Democrats fail to work together, we all lose. 

All of us must join the fight. Jewish families nationwide are depending on it.

Guila Franklin Siegel is associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

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