Op-Ed: How are we doing teaching about antisemitism? Ask your kids

Originally published in Bronx TImes on June 01, 2022.

Last month I traveled with a delegation from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to Albany to advocate for a comprehensive plan to combat antisemitism and a Holocaust education bill.

It isn’t every day a high school senior meets with a dozen state lawmakers and members of the governor’s staff in a single day, so I made the most of it.

I provided valuable insights into the experiences Jewish youth across New York face daily. Despite living in the largest Jewish community outside of Israel — or maybe because of that — teens like me have to stare down antisemitism daily, whether on social media, in classrooms or in the subways, where swastikas are graffitied on the trains we take to and from school.

It is why we advocated for the Holocaust education bill, sponsored by Sen. Anna Kaplan and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, which was passed by the state Legislature on May 25. If signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul, it will direct the state education commissioner to assess how the Holocaust is taught statewide. This is especially important amid the results of a 2020 Claims Conference survey that found millennials and Gen Z adults in New York state scored the lowest in knowledge of the Holocaust in the U.S.

On May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s statehood, I visited Mauthausen concentration camp, where at least 95,000 people were murdered. It was disturbing to realize that 77 years after Mauthausen was liberated, young people in New York City, home to more than 1.5 million Jews and thousands of Holocaust survivors, don’t know enough about the magnitude of the horrors inflicted by the Nazis.

It’s often said that antisemitism is the world’s oldest hatred. Indeed, it remains a plague today. We live in a world that has grown increasingly hostile toward Jews. I see firsthand how deeply it affects my peers, especially as we prepare to go to college. An increasing number of campuses are home to anti-Israel groups that perpetuate antisemitic conspiracies, attempt to shame or harass students who are pro-Israel or loudly advocate for their schools to join the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel.

According to AJC’s latest State of Antisemitism in America report, 50% of Jews reported that antisemitism on college campuses has increased over the last five years. One in five either knew someone who experienced antisemitism in college over the last five years or experienced it themselves.

Another AJC poll released in April surveyed millennials, some not far removed from their college years. Nearly 24% said the climate on college campuses forced them to conceal their Jewish identity, while 28% said the anti-Israel climate on campus prompted them to rethink their commitment to Israel.

Depending on where we study, dealing with anti-Israel and, by extension, anti-Jewish sentiment, could become part of our college experience. How my generation responds is key to safeguarding the Jewish community.

One way is through AJC’s Leaders for Tomorrow program, an education and advocacy initiative I am a part of, which empowers Jewish teens to speak up for Israel and the Jewish people. I have had the privilege of engaging with peers across the city on issues like rising antisemitism, Holocaust denial, how to confront anti-Israel sentiments and attacks on the legitimacy of Israel. We know what is at stake.

Of course, the Jewish community is not alone in our struggle against hate; Black, Asian and Latino communities have also grappled with hate-fueled incidents in New York City. It is why coalition-building is so important and should be part of our institutional framework in schools.

I told the decisionmakers I met in Albany just that. The more we build bridges among religious and ethnic groups, the more we can make a meaningful difference. Where there is hate toward one group, there is always hate toward another.

Our delegation left no doubt in the minds of the lawmakers and policymakers we met about why the rise in antisemitism is so deeply concerning. It should not be too much to ask to live safely and securely and to be Jewish and proud — without fear.

Eytan Saenger is a senior at SAR High School in Riverdale and an intern at the American Jewish Committee’s regional office in New York.