How to talk to kids about anti-Semitism

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Panelists from the ADL, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Arlington County schools speak about discussing anti-Semitism with children at Congregation Etz Hayim. Photo by Chris Kagy
Panelists from the ADL, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Arlington County schools speak about discussing anti-Semitism with children at Congregation Etz Hayim.
Photo by Chris Kagy

Anti-Semitism is in the forefront of the minds of Jewish parents, as their children are increasingly hearing about —or experiencing — anti-Semitism and more parents are thrust into answering their questions about it.

Jewish organizations raised alarms last month when the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that 100 of 867 hate incidents in the days following the presidential election were classified as anti-Semitic.


Events of recent weeks may be some children’s first exposure to anti-Semitism. How should parents handle the subject? It isn’t easy, said Natalie Roisman, vice president of education at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington.

“Who wants to be the person to break it your child that there are people who will” want to hurt him “because he’s Jewish?” she said.

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The key to discussing anti-Semitism with children, experts say, is to be ready for an open, but age-sensitive dialogue.

“I think more than anything there is a trepidation [from parents] to approach [a discussion about anti-Semitism] and a desire to shield children from anti-Semitism and hatred in any form,” said Seth Gordon-Lipkin, education director at the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office.


Gordon-Lipkin said the key to starting the conversation with kids is helping them recognize anti-Semitism when they see it. “A lot of the time, stereotypes against Jews are subtle things that are ingrained in our culture,” he said.

One example is holding American Jews accountable for the actions of the Israeli government, a topic Gordon-Lipkin said that Jewish students bring up to him. His advice: Confront it by explaining why it is a double standard.

“If I’m Jewish and you’re holding me accountable for the Israeli government,” he said. “Why isn’t an Italian American questioned for the actions of the Italian government?”

The best to age to start the discussion is 12, according to Brenna Hicks, a Florida-based child therapist.
She said that is the age when children become capable of understanding abstract ideas like hate. Regardless of a child’s age, however, the key is to be honest and keep things simple.

“I think any time an adult is trying to have a conversation about a difficult topic, age-appropriate honesty is the best approach,” she said.

Hicks emphasized that children best understand abstract ideas when they are connected with real experiences.
If a child experiences an anti-Semitic incident, Hicks said parents should start the conversation with empathy.

“I know it really hurt your feelings, I know that made you feel bad,” she said, imitating the conversation.  She encouraged parents to follow up, using the moments to discuss ideas like hatred or anti-Semitism.

Roisman’s synagogue, Etz Hayim, held a panel discussion on Dec. 4 on how to speak to children about anti-Semitism, featuring speakers from the ADL, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Arlington County public schools.

Roisman said she believes both Jewish religious schools and parents have a responsibility to talk about anti-Semitism with their kids, and she also hopes parents of non-Jewish children are doing the same.

Teens who are going to college also may be experiencing anti-Semitism for the first time and “aren’t necessarily prepared to deal with it. To me, it seems like it’s everybody’s responsibility,” she said.

Gordon-Lipkin, who spoke on the panel, thinks there has been “an awakening within our own Jewish community that anti-Semitism isn’t a thing of the past.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. I don’t think it’s realistic to wait until twelve years old for the conversation to start. I have gotten questions about the Nazis in The Sound of Music and the Egyptians in The Prince of Egypt. My daughter also asked about a moment of silence for the anniversary of 9/11. When my daughter asked why the mean people are mean I had to say ii really don’t understand the type of inhumanity displyed either.

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