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Scott Richman is the regional director of Anti-Defamation League New York/New Jersey. This first appeared in NJ Spotlight.
This week, nearly 1.3 million New Jersey public school students return to school. It’s an exciting new beginning for students and should be a clean slate — a chance for students to enter new classrooms with opportunities to learn and grow.
Although schools strive to create an ideal climate for such opportunities, we are witnessing a troubling surge in antisemitic incidents within New Jersey schools. According to Anti-Defamation League data, New Jersey public schools experienced 120 reported antisemitic incidents in 2022, a46% rise from 2021 and a 24% increase from the previous all-time high of 97 incidents in 2019.
We can all agree that even just one incident in schools is one too many. Antisemitism, in all its forms, is an affront to our students, our teachers and, more broadly, democracy and society. From swastikas scrawled on school walls to verbal abuse and bullying targeting Jewish students, both in person and online, these incidents perpetuate hatred and fear. By failing to properly respond to such occurrences, we allow antisemitism — and all forms of hate — to fester, endangering the fabric of our communities. Each time that an antisemitic incident happens in a school, it undermines a school’s climate of respect and inclusion for all and threatens the well-being of Jewish — and all — students.
Need for anti-bias, anti-hate education
To address these disturbing trends, New Jersey schools should implement comprehensive anti-bias, anti-bullying and anti-hate education — the most potent tools to combat ignorance and prejudice. Education promoting diversity and dispelling stereotypes can help create an inclusive school community.
New Jersey also mandates Holocaust and genocide education, which can help students understand the consequences of antisemitism and hate-fueled actions. We are thankful that Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed into law legislation to survey whether and how public schools are satisfying this mandate.
Reporting incidents is also crucial. Schools must empower students, teachers and parents to report antisemitic and other bias incidents — both to their school administration and to organizations like ADL. The Division on Civil Rights in the New Jersey attorney general’s office is another important resource for educators and parents. Reporting is necessary — not just for better data, which drives policy, but to ensure that no school climate tacitly condones hate.
We must also support Jewish students affected by antisemitic incidents. More and more often, surveys have shown that Jewish students who have witnessed or experienced an antisemitic incident are more scared than others to openly acknowledge their identity. In the aftermath of an antisemitic incident, local synagogues, day schools, Jewish community centers and campuses can provide educational programs that help to empower Jewish students with tools to confront antisemitism in their everyday lives. These programs can further help all students understand and challenge prejudice, hatred and discrimination against any group.
Beyond addressing problems in the schools, we must advocate for responsible online platforms, since social media and game platforms are where students spend a great deal of time when they are outside of school. Sadly, children are increasingly being exposed to white supremacist and extremist rhetoric online. Gov. Murphy’s bill mandating information-literacy instruction in schools is an important first step, but we must call on social media companies to ensure transparency and the full enforcement of their own content moderation guidelines to help curb surges in online hate.
Finally, we need a whole-of-society approach to stop this surge in hate. Schools should work with parents, local government, community leaders and clergy to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding, strengthen the bonds between different communities and foster empathy and solidarity. We are currently working with New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights, Department of Education and the United States Attorney’s Office to help school administrators and educators respond to bias incidents. We must all keep working together.
New Jersey’s public schools can be beacons of inclusion, understanding and equity for all. Only then can we hope to build a brighter future where bigotry and hatred have no place.