October 7th and Antisemitism in the Elementary School Classroom

October 7th brought savage Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians in which 1200 were massacred, and 239 taken hostage. Among the murdered were men, women, pregnant women, children, infants, and the elderly. These innocents were tortured and killed in the most brutal ways imaginable—so brutal we prefer not to mention these unspeakable atrocities in this space. In the wake of these attacks and Israel’s resultant war on Hamas, there has been a dramatic rise in antisemitism. How can parents protect their elementary school children from the violence and hate? What should parents say to their children about such difficult topics as terror, evil, and antisemitism?

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) there was a nearly 400 percent increase in antisemitic incidents in October. From the ADL:

New York, NY, October 25, 2023 … Since the Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) has recorded a significant spike in antisemitic incidents across the United States. Preliminary data from ADL Center on Extremism indicates that reported incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault increased by 388 percent over the same period last year.

ADL recorded a total of 312 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7-23, 2023, 190 of which were directly linked to the war in Israel and Gaza. By comparison, during the same period in 2022, ADL received preliminary reports of 64 incidents, including four that were Israel-related.

October 7th Classroom Repercussions

While antisemitic incidents are more common on college campuses and at protests and rallies, elementary schools are not immune. Two teachers in an LA charter school housed in a synagogue talked to students about the “genocide” in Gaza, and what must be done to “repair this harm.” The principal of this school, moreover received complaints from staff about Israeli flags hung up on campus in the wake of the Hamas massacre. These complaints were relayed by the principal, Hye-Won Gehring, to the rabbi of the synagogue, asking him how long the flags would be up:

Gehring had sent an email to [Congregation Adat Are El Senior Rabbi Brian] Schuldenfrei on October 16 asking how long the flags would be up, according to the rabbi. Kaplan called the question “insensitive and inappropriate,” and Schuldenfrei recounted that he had told Gehring her email was “offensive.”

“I told the principal that inquiring when our flags were coming down was like asking someone on Sept. 11 to take down their American flags just a few days later. It is painfully insensitive,” Schuldenfrei said during the press conference. He added that the principal had apologized to him, but that “this was not the end of the issue.”

The principal was given a two-week leave to “focus on learning how to combat antisemitism and engage in sensitivity training to learn from this experience,” said Melissa Caplan, the school network’s executive director. The two teachers were fired.

Adat-Ari-El-press-conference after October 7th related school incidents
Press conference outside an LA charter school where first grade children were taught that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, and where staff requested that Israeli flags, hung in the wake of the October 7th massacre, be taken down.

How to Reverse Indoctrination?

This is all well and good, but what steps should parents now take to reverse the indoctrination of their children? How long until antisemitism spreads to other elementary schools? What can parents do to protect their children?

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) “enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects all students from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance from the Department.”

An OCR fact sheet lists a few examples of incidents that could raise Title VI concerns, including this one:

“A Jewish middle school student reports to a teacher that the student feels unsafe at school because classmates routinely place notes with swastikas on the student’s backpack, perform Nazi salutes, and make jokes about the Holocaust. The teacher advises the student to “just ignore it” and takes no steps to address the harassment.”

Parents: Worried and Watchful

How much worse is it then, when teachers and principals are active participants in making their young students feel uncomfortable, and moreover, unsafe? How can parents protect their children from being indoctrinated with hate? Parents of Jewish children are worried and watchful, wondering how long it is until antisemitism comes to their own children’s classrooms.

“The explosion of antisemitic protests on college campuses, all the way to the hallowed halls of Harvard, is shocking,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman, author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror. “But, worse still are the revelations that antisemitism is being taught and condoned even in elementary schools.

“Dick and Jane now learn that Israel commits genocide and that Jews are bad,” says Lieberman.

“This is all the more shocking because our schools are turning into Middle East madrasas that teach little terrorists how to commit jihad. So parents have a double whammy of things they need to talk to their children about, and the talk will be more or less detailed depending upon how old the child is and how psychologically mature they are.”

Netanya, Israel - November 5th 2023. Street installation - the sign of solidarity and a reminder of Israeli children, adults and elderly people kidnapped and taken hostage by Hamas on October 7th 2023.
Netanya, Israel – November 5th 2023. Street installation – the sign of solidarity and a reminder of Israeli children, adults and elderly people kidnapped and taken hostage by Hamas on October 7th, 2023.

Speaking to Children About Evil

In regard to explaining the events of October 7th, Dr. Elana Heideman, Holocaust scholar and Executive Director of The Israel Forever Foundation says “Jewish parents everywhere are faced with a unique challenge while coping with today’s rising antisemitism and attacks on Israel – how do we speak to our children about the evil in the world?

“We want nothing more than to protect our beautiful, curious young minds from the horrors, while helping them to understand why people would do this, and what it means for our Jewish future, and theirs. As a Holocaust educator, this has been a challenge we have faced when trying to transmit the experiences and lessons of the horrors of that time. No one could have imagined we would again be faced with having to ‘explain’ once again the depravity of human behavior in our civilized world. But the responsibility is clear—we the parents must find the ways to speak to our children while doing our best to prevent the pain and heartbreak,” says Heideman, a mother of young children herself.

“Creating a peaceful and calm space, using soft voices, avoiding graphic detail, and allowing our children the freedom to ask and express themselves, we can touch upon the thoughts and feelings they are harboring inside. To explain the massacre, the attacks, and the war on the Jews in Israel and the world most effectively, we can open the discussions with questions—what have they heard? What questions do they have?”

A Message of Hope and Strength

“The calm we maintain in our response, and answering in a general explanation that incorporates a message of hope and strength, are the first steps to helping them navigate the unimaginable confusion and prevent the pain, fear, anxiety or despair that can come from exposure to the evils of our world,” says Heideman. “We can emphasize that our people have suffered tragedies in each generation, and that by learning about them, we do not have to absorb their pain, but rather inherit the courage and pride of standing up for our rights as Jews and maintaining our faith in God who has enabled us to outlast every enemy that seeks our destruction.”

Dr. Lieberman suggests that parents begin by speaking to children about the October 7th in terms they understand. For example, parents might liken terrorists to bullies on the playground.

“First, parents need to talk about what happened on Oct. 7th, the Hamas terrorist invasion of Israel. If it’s a young child, you can say that terrorists are like bullies on the playground. They want to have their way and will do whatever it takes to get it—even hurt others.

“If the child is mature enough, parents can go further and explain that terrorists want to destroy Israel and kill Jews because they don’t believe in the same religion that terrorists are taught to believe in. Terrorists are taught that the most honorable way to live their life is to kill people who don’t believe in their God, Allah.

Pure Evil

“The way that Hamas attacked Israelis was pure evil, so parents can include this in their explanation, if it fits with their beliefs,” says Lieberman.

It hurts to teach these things to our children, but parents may be more concerned about making them fearful. In addition to what they hear at school and on the playground, children are little sponges. They also hear about the violent protests in the streets and on college campuses. According to Lieberman, “Parents need to find the proper balance between informing children about what’s going on in the world and not frightening them. They need to explain that the protesters have learned history wrong. Israel did not steal anyone’s land and is just a country trying to survive in peace. They can show them a map, so kids can see how small Israel is compared to all the other countries in the Middle East—and how terrorists keep wanting to bully them, even though their countries don’t need more land.

“As for antisemitism,” says Lieberman, “parents can use stories in the news about protests on school campuses as a jumping off point to talk about how wrong this is. Parents of all faiths have a responsibility to talk to their kids’ teachers and the principal, to find out what the school is doing to prevent antisemitism amongst their students. Parents can also organize a committee—perhaps as part of the PTA—to be a watchdog at the school and nip any acts in the bud.”

It is normal for children to feel upset on realizing that people hate them and may even want to hurt them. Some children, however, may not be able to cope with their feelings on their own. When should parents consult an expert? “Parents should be on the lookout for kids becoming anxious, depressed, isolating in their room, not doing as well in school and having nightmares,” says Dr. Lieberman. “Make sure that they know they can ask you anything and tell you how they feel. If their problems last more than a couple of weeks, or are very serious, take them to a mental health professional for help.”

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.