Anti-Semitism is not a new threat to Jews. Acts of discrimination, ostracism and physical violence have plagued Jewish communities from the beginning. An early example in the biblical Middle East would be when Jews rejected idols, opting instead for a new religious structure of monotheism. This resistance to polytheism created a divide between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. Since this rejection of tradition was interpreted as hostility to non-Jews, violence broke out. Another example can be found during the early 14th century when the black plague was ravaging Europe. Jewish merchants were frequently captured by governments and tortured until they gave false confessions to poisoning drinking water in order to spread the disease. And, during the 20th century, millions of Jews were brutally murdered by the Nazi regime which tied the Jewish religion to an impurity of race and used Jews as a scapegoat for European economic and social failures.
Given this history, there is no doubt that anti-Semitism is an issue far from being resolved. A report published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) showed that in 2017 there was a 60 percent rise in overall anti-Semitic incidents and a 90 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents against young children. Hate crimes, especially towards Jews, have risen over the past decades, and it is time we do something to stop them.
Growing up in Utah, I have dealt with my fair share of anti-Semitism from my peers at school. Kids have carved swastikas into my desks, posted Nazi propaganda in the halls, hit me with their backpacks, saluted Hitler almost daily, made mocking death threats to the tune of children’s shows theme songs and told horrifying jokes about the Holocaust and killing Jews whenever they knew I was in ear shot. In the fifth grade, my younger brother had an Ellis Island role play activity, which was set in the 1950’s, at his school. He went to school dressed as a French immigrant, but because his teacher knew he was Jewish—and the only Jew in the school—he was told he would be a Jewish immigrant and was given a yellow star of David to wear, identical to those forced upon Jews in the Holocaust. Throughout the day he, and three other boys assigned to be Jewish for the activity because of their brown hair, faced a variety of mistreatments from the adults and other children. The principal, teachers and parent volunteers instructed the non-Jewish assigned children to mistreat the children with yellow stars of David pinned on their chests. The boys were given less food at lunch, sent to the back of lines and verbally assaulted by the other children.
As my parents worked with school administrators to address these issues, they heard a number of anti-Semitic arguments including by the school principal, who turned out to be a Holocaust denier. Parent volunteers said they went along with the mistreatment in the activity because the principal and teachers told them it was part of the learning process in the activity. Administrators were concerned about embarrassing those involved in antisemitic acts against my brother and me. Ultimately, refusing to address the issues at all. These incidents are not isolated to Utah, or my family, as Jewish kids all around the world are dealing with similar and far worse situations.
Anti-Semitic acts aimed at children have prompted many states to revisit their hate crimes laws and update them to include harsher sentencing when a crime is committed with a motivation by bias. In fact, Utah did not have specific hate crime legislation until 2018. Now, almost every state in the U.S. has added an “enhanced penalty” to their hate crimes law. In most states, applicable upgrades based on biases include sexual orientation, disability, age, race, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation and gender.
There are three ways states categorize laws when it comes to hate crimes legislation. The first is a state which has a class upgrade and requires data collection on hate crimes. This would mean that if someone is assaulted because of their race, the assault would receive a class upgrade and the fact that it was racially motivated would be reported. Of the 50 states in the U.S. only 58 percent of them now have laws which follow that description.
The second, is a state which has a class upgrade, but does not require data collection of hate crimes. This means that if someone was assaulted because of their race, the assault would receive a class upgrade, but it would not have to be officially reported to the state and federal government. This second type of law includes 34 percent of states.
The third type is a state which does not currently have a class upgrade or a requirement to report hate crime statistics. For example, if someone were assaulted because of their race, the assault would not receive a class upgrade and would not be required to be reported to the state and federal governments. This type of state makes up the remaining 8 percent.
While great strides have been taken recently to protect those affected by these incidents, there is still much more that can be done. Most case upgrades only take biased motivated crimes from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor. This means that in several cases the only thing which can be added on to sentencing is a larger fine or mediation after the incident has happened. And while it is meant to protect the victim affected, the justice system of the United States still focuses more heavily on getting the cases through, and often does not include the victim to any further extent than filling out an incident report.
The problem of anti-Semitism will not be solved overnight, and there is still much more that can be done to combat the issue, but the fact that steps are being taken to protect those who have been hurt is a victory. It is hard to think about children being involved in such deep-set hatred, but the fact that the next generation of American Jews will have more protection makes it worth the fight.
Isabelle White is a sophomore at Highland High School in Salt Lake City. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.