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A Curriculum to Combat Antisemitism

Ms. Adina Shoulson
May 10, 2024

On October 7, 2022, Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West) accused the rapper Diddy of being controlled by Jews, followed by a tweet about “going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.” Ye’s comments sparked additional antisemitic outbursts by other entertainers and led to widespread concern about the proliferation and acceptance of antisemitism in the public sphere. This was the context that gave birth to our Innovation Lab project, funded by the Covenant Foundation, a series of new lessons on antisemitism to enhance our 10th grade Jewish history curriculum. The goal of the curriculum was to educate students on the history of antisemitism, to help them understand the origins and contemporary manifestations of antisemitic tropes, and to explore ways that Jews have responded to the challenges of antisemitism. Included in our goals was the desire to explore contemporary antisemitic language and imagery and to bring in members of the community who are on the front lines of combating antisemitism today. We began this project not a moment too soon. Soon after October 7, 2023, the start of this school year, our students’ social media accounts were flooded with images and memes taking aim at Jews and Zionism. What began as a pilot for two 10th grade sections became mandatory for the whole grade. This initiative has offered the space and structure in our classrooms to discuss pressing questions surrounding antisemitism and to provide some crucial context and knowledge for our students at this fraught time.

Our first step was defining the term “antisemitism.” We compiled an assortment of contemporary images, quotes and video clips about Jews. Students explored these examples and identified what, if anything, made them antisemitic. Some were obvious (“it’s all about the Benjamins baby”). Some required explanation (an image of a seeing eye dog with Netanyahu’s face leading a blind Donald Trump). Others were subject to debate (when Larry David’s Swedish lawyer uses Yiddish expressions and displays a shofar on his desk). Some seemed to shift as the year went on (“From the River to the Sea”). Students then drafted their own definition of antisemitism, and we examined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. The most useful part of this exercise was identifying a series of categories (control, conspiracy, greed, authenticity) that we returned to as we turned to study historical manifestations of antisemitism.

We first examined tropes in our Enlightenment unit, which provided an opportunity to explore 17th and 18th century expressions of antisemitism. A central theme of the 10th grade history course is the emergence and flourishing of liberalism as well as the challenges this ideology continues to face. Beginning with John Locke and other social contract theorists, students learn about the role of government in protecting the natural rights and liberties of individuals. Enlightenment thinkers believe in equality before the law and value reason over superstition and tradition. Religious tolerance is an outgrowth of these ideas, and, indeed, some attest to their acceptance of Jews as equal citizens. Therefore, students were surprised to read Voltaire’s assessment of Jews: that they are a barbarous, fanatic and alien people who threaten western culture. And while Immanuel Kant viewed Christianity as a rational religion, he denied that Judaism is a religion at all because it has no moral foundation. Assessing excerpts of these thinkers against the tropes that we had previously identified enabled students to see that, as Noah Feldman has argued, “antisemitism is actually a shape-shifting, protean, creative force. Antisemitism has managed to reinvent itself multiple times throughout history, each time keeping some of the old tropes around, while simultaneously creating new ones adapted to present circumstances.”

As we moved forward chronologically and eastward geographically, we enriched our course through a focus on the Kishinev Pogrom and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In retrospect, it is embarrassing that we hadn’t taught these topics previously! But with so much to cover, we had never focused on these topics, except a passing mention of the Protocols in units on Nazi propaganda or Henry Ford. This new focus on antisemitism shone a spotlight on the pogroms of 1903 and Chaim Nachman Bialik’s influential poem “In the City of Slaughter.” This poem played a key role in the nascent Zionist movement, and the lesson that Jews moved to the Land of Israel because they were unwelcome in Europe, not because they were European colonizers, was particularly important this year. Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a clear example of a conspiracy theory, and there is no shortage of contemporary examples for students to consider.

We have been teaching an integrated Jewish and general history course in our 9th and 10th grades since SAR High School began, and we believe that the study of Jewish history is essential to forming a robust and proud Jewish identity. The focus of our curriculum has been, and will continue to be, Jewish thriving: Jewish adaptability, Jewish creativity, and Jewish contributions to the broader society. And while we do not embrace a lachrymose conception of Jewish history, it has felt appropriate and necessary to add this new focus on antisemitism. To fight antisemitism, we first have to recognize it. Understanding the historical origins of present-day defamation guards our students against falling prey to negative portrayals of Jews and empowers them to correct misinformation. Our additions this year have helped students to recognize, name and explain many of the antisemitic tropes that they have unfortunately encountered over the past few months. While we wish these lessons were not necessary, they have become indispensable in today’s world, and we plan to continue educating students to be informed and resilient Jewish leaders who are prepared to navigate the complexities of the world with confidence and conviction.

Ms. Adina Shoulson

Ms. Adina Shoulson

Adina Shoulson chairs the SAR High School History Department. Adina received her B.A. from Columbia University and earned her MA in the NYU Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.

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