Jews Must Speak up Against MCPS’s Skyrocketing Antisemitism

Margery Smelkinson

By Margery Smelkinson and Lisa R. Miller

Antisemitism isn’t just terrorist atrocities in Israel, sporadic assaults in Europe, or a scourge on elite college campuses. Tragically, it also lives among us, right here in Montgomery County Public Schools. Anti-Jewish hate is an ugly reality in our schools and our experiences as an MCPS parent and an educator have shown us that our county leaders are not going to fix this of their own volition. Since no one else will do it for us, Montgomery County’s Jewish community must come together in solidarity to guarantee the safety of Jewish children and staff within our public schools.

Lisa R. Miller

Even before the terrorist attack on Israel, statistics in MCPS revealed that 61% of all hate/bias incidents in MCPS targeted the Jewish community, despite Jews comprising only about 10% of the population. Since Oct. 7, the situation has worsened, with over 73 reported incidents of antisemitism in MCPS.

These are not just lone wolf incidents. Just in the last two months, at least six high schools have held anti-Israel walkouts, many of which were mired in antisemitic signs, slogans and speeches with references to “genocide,” “intifada” and “the Zionist occupation.”

Nor is antisemitism in the halls of MCPS confined just to the student body. Three MCPS staff members were put on administrative leave for posting antisemitic content on their social media platforms, including blood libel and denials of the Oct. 7 attack. An additional educator was found signing her work emails with “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a phrase calling for the destruction of Israel. Despite being removed from the classroom, municipal employee protections make it likely they will eventually be back in classrooms.

These are the stories that have made the news; unfortunately, the overwhelming majority have slipped under the radar. A Jewish student that routinely received a Hitler salute as he walked down the hallway. The young child who regularly had his yarmulke snatched off his head. An elementary schooler who was told by a classmate, “I hate all Jews.” The cyberbullying of a high schooler simply for being Jewish. An educator dissuaded from filing a hate and bias complaint because antisemitic speech sometimes falls into the “free speech” category (even though this wasn’t). And many, many more.

Unfortunately, too many parents and staff refrain from reporting because the process is lengthy, bureaucratic and opaque. And in the end, the results are often unjust and unsatisfying. Incomplete reporting obscures the scale and severity of the problem, which, in turn, promotes a disconcerting yet widespread reluctance within the Jewish community to assert their voice in the face of blatant Jew-hatred.

This reluctance is primarily driven by concerns of potential retaliation and apprehensions about being aligned with the conservative perspective on an issue. But there should be nothing conservative-coded about fighting antisemitism. American Jews have long been on the battle lines of the wars to achieve tolerance throughout our history. We have bravely fought on the battle lines to banish hatred and bigotry and many of us use these words verbatim in seeking Hashem’s protection for the United States. Our bona fides are good and our conscience clear, we can and must address these issues when they affect our own people.

To advocate for reforms, to shine a spotlight on these routine antisemitic occurrences, and above all, to encourage those in the county to speak up when an incident occurs, we have formed two grassroots groups in Montgomery Country composed of educators, parents, students, clergy and community members.

The Montgomery County Jewish Educators Alliance is pushing to reform district policies. MCJEA’s proposals encompass enriching the English and Social Studies curricula to include discussions about Judaism and requiring the reading of texts like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Night” by Elie Wiesel. They are also demanding a staff training framework addressing antisemitism, a Title VI director to oversee responses to hate-based incidents, an online dashboard to monitor occurrences and a class on proper social media use and source vetting.

The Maryland Jewish Alliance complements these efforts by actively engaging in letter writing campaigns, tracking legislation, collaborating with local representatives and MCPS administrators and participating in Board of Education meetings to enhance stakeholder involvement.

History has long demonstrated that laying low and staying silent will not protect the Jewish people from antisemitism. Left unchallenged, antisemitism has a tendency to spread like a wicked conflagration. It certainly won’t stay contained to the public schools. We need everyone to fight the fires of antisemitism: teachers and staff, clergy and legislators, parents, students and community members. The more vocal and unembarrassed advocates we become for a school system free of antisemitism, the sooner we can make it a reality.

Margery Smelkinson, Ph.D., is a parent of students in MCPS and a leader of the Maryland Jewish Alliance.

Lisa R. Miller is an educator in MCPS and a leader of Montgomery County Jewish Educators Alliance.

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