Antisemitism in school: ‘It’s more like friends making an ignorant joke’

Students at Montgomery Blair High School talk about living with antisemitism

Jewish Culture Club members, from left, Galya Diamond-Berman, Jack Bevington, Ricky Reeves, Jonas Laufer. Photo by Suzanne Pollak

At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, antisemitism comes in the form of comments, jokes, ignorance and insensitivity. That’s the impression given by four members of the school’s Jewish Culture Club, whose monthly meetings explore Judaism as an ethnicity and religion.

Seniors Ricky Reeves, Galya Diamond-Berman, Jonas Laufer and Jack Bevington told Washington Jewish Week that the antisemitism they experience isn’t blatant, but it is pervasive.

They often find themselves in a bind, wondering if it’s better to be quiet or speak out when classmates — and especially their friends — defend rapper Kanye West (now known as Ye) when they say the rap star is a great artist and so who cares if he makes antisemitic remarks.

How does one explain that saying you are “going death con 3 on Jewish people,” as West did last fall, is not a simple statement that can be ignored? wondered Ricky Reeves.Galya Diamond-Berman said that since Ye’s comments sparked controversy last October, antisemitic remarks at the school have increased. “I feel like recently it’s been more. It’s felt more close to home since Kanye. It felt more directed at our generation.”

She added, “I think the Kanye thing kind of showed me who stands with Jewish people.”

Jonas Laufer agreed. “After Kanye, you can see who cares and who doesn’t.”

The students pointed to Rihanna’s recent Super Bowl performance, when she sang “All of the Lights,” which was written by Ye. Why was that necessary, they wondered.

Reeves described an incident in which a Jewish friend observed on TikTok how crowded the mall was on Christmas Eve. She was “flooded” with responses like, “Of course it would be a Jewish person to make Christmas about themselves,” he said.

People feel free to post hate comments on social media, the students noted.Between 25 and 30 students attend the Jewish Culture Club’s monthly meetings, the students say. More than half are not Jewish.

Montgomery Blair hasn’t been the scene of galvanizing incidents, such as the one at Walt Whitman High School last December, when someone spray painted “Jews Not Welcome” on the school’s outdoor sign. But during Holocaust Remembrance Week at Montgomery Blair last year, someone carved a swastika where students had placed Post-it notes on which they described their feelings about the Holocaust.

More the norm is to make antisemitic comments, openly and freely, at a school with a student body of about 3,000 students, of which fewer than 200 are Jewish.

The students said the treatment was a continuation of what they experienced in middle school. Laufer said “people would throw coins at me.” Some students at Silver Spring International Middle School called him “my favorite Jew.”

For Jack Bevington, seeing swastikas drawn on bathroom stalls was not uncommon in middle school. “At the end of the day, I’ve never had someone come at me. It’s more friends making an ignorant joke,” he said.

“It’s kind of like a joking thing, but sometimes they will take it a step too far,” he said, adding his response sometimes is to dish it right back in his own way, like by making a joke about being short.

Things are worse at Wheaton High School, according to one of the students, who said there is a group of Nazi supporters there who make it clear they hate Jews.

To Diamond-Becker, it’s better to just not say much rather than leave herself open to nasty comments. She said she will be spending a year in Israel after she graduates high school.

She said she has only told her closest friends about where she’s going. “I’ve been wary of who I tell,” she said.The students said that if they say they support Israel, other students think that means they support everything the Israeli government does.

The Jewish students are accused of holding beliefs they don’t necessary ascribe to, yet they would rather just avoid the subject than detail their actual beliefs. Especially, said Diamond-Becker, when many of their fellow classmates don’t know all the facts.

According to Bevington, “if people learn that Israel is important to me,” they think he believes Israel can do no wrong. Many classmates seem to believe “you are a good person if you don’t support Israel,” he said.

Asked if they would like their teachers and administrators to get more involved in responding to antisemitism, the students said that would do more harm than good. If teachers said something, “I honestly feel there would be more backlash,” Laufer said.

They questioned the current school procedure that forces a person who makes an antisemitic remark or commits an antisemitic act to sit down and try to reconcile with the Jewish victim.

The club’s adviser, teacher Marc Grossman, agreed. Why must the victim help work out a solution? he said. “If it’s not done well, it can do a lot of harm.”

Grossman said it is rare for a student to be caught, and he believes more of an effort should go in that direction. Then, he said, have the culprit clean up the graffiti or an equivalent punishment.

The Jewish Culture Club members discussed staging a walkout against antisemitism, as a few other Montgomery County public schools have done.

“We were just kind of worried people would just come to skip [class],” Bevington said. “What would be the point?” ■

Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here