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The campus protests’ K-12 origins


Generation Z has shocked their elders. The campus protests that have swept the country reflect deep-seated anti-Israel sentiment — and worse

In December, a Harvard/Harris poll found that 67% of 18-24-year-olds agreed “Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors.” By contrast, 27% of all adults agreed. 

This has manifested in young people chanting “Intifada revolution” and “From the River to the Sea,” even if they can’t identify the river or sea. 

(Washington Examiner illustration)

This disturbing trend of anti-Jewish attitudes, sometimes but not always masked as anti-Zionism, makes it clear that campus indoctrination isn’t the whole story. Rabbi Daniel Levitt, who spent 15 years as a campus Hillel professional, posted, “They’re radicalized before they get to campus.”

A litigator and strategic consultant whose national practice specializes in representing private school parents argued that campus activists “show up having already tested the waters with their K-12 administrators.” These students “know they can make false statements, be threatening, aggressive, and vocally vicious all without penalty, so long as they are taking a stand that fits within the administration’s progressive narrative around race and oppression.” And antisemitic campus protests certainly do.

In the three months following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Anti-Defamation League tallied 256 reported antisemitic incidents in K-12 schools nationwide. The Washington Examiner spoke to more than 40 people about their own recent experiences in public and independent schools. From a parent who resigned from the Democratic Socialists of America over its response to Oct. 7 to Donald Trump supporters, they spoke of progressive ideology that often ignored antisemitism or even fanned the flames.

Adherents of this ideology prefer it remain unnamed, but it is variously called diversity, equity, and inclusion, critical race theory, critical social justice, anti-racism, and wokeness. It dominates schools and will shape the country’s future.

Consider one high-profile example. Montgomery County Public Schools has been highly ranked and serves a sizable Jewish population relative to the national average. While Jews are approximately 2% of all Americans, “Montgomery County is about 10% Jewish,” according to Meredith Weisel, regional director of ADL Washington, D.C. MCPS is now also the subject of a federal Title VI investigation based on allegations of antisemitism.

The school system has repeatedly made headlines for reported antisemitism. Still, it’s difficult to track the frequency of such incidents

Andrew Winter, an elementary school principal and the founder of the Montgomery County Jewish Educators Alliance, said, “MCPS tracks reported incidents of hate bias.” Winter does “not believe” the findings are published. However, “I know this year from the start of the school year until Oct. 7 — that weekend — the number was 19 incidents. Since Oct. 7, there’s been over 60 more incidents that have been reported,” Winter shared in mid-January.

Moderately MOCO, a local news outlet, analyzed “hate and bias incidents” for July 2022 to October 2023. Eighty-one incidents, or 61% of reports from all schools, targeted Jews.

When MCPS put four educators on leave for antisemitic social media posts and a “River to the Sea” email signature last fall, Jewish parents hoped the school system would stand strong against antisemitism. However, three of those four teachers have already been reinstated at different schools.

Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, said her organization filed a Maryland Public Information Act request last October, seeking “three weeks of emails from the Board of Education [and superintendent]” mentioning Israel, Hamas, and related terms. In a response letter Neily shared, MCPS said fulfilling that request would cost $8,492.08, a price seemingly intended “to dissuade people from asking.” By February’s end, Neily said, MCPS had released only external documents.

Parents have encountered other barriers. Nicole Kashtan, the mother of two MCPS students and a member of the Montgomery County Jewish Parents Coalition, recalled meeting with an MCPS administrator about the district’s anti-racist audit: “We said to him a number of times we’re concerned about this potentially promoting progressive social justice antisemitism. He really rebuffed that. … [He] refused to include antisemitism as part of the audit and refused to push MCPS to do a separate, parallel audit specifically on antisemitism. That was problematic, because even in 2021 and into 2022, antisemitism was already high among young people.” Antisemitism certainly feels widespread to parents. A middle and elementary school parent said, “The incidents have increased tremendously since Oct. 7. They were already on the rise, but after Oct. 7 every single Jewish kid I know had something.”

Even early grades aren’t immune. Marci Serfaty, a teacher at Bayard Rustin Elementary School, described teaching kindergarteners a Hanukkah lesson last December and taking questions at the end: “One child raised his hand and said, ‘My father said that Jewish people are the bad guys, and they’re killing everybody.’ Then a second child said, ‘the Jews are going to hell.’ My school administrators took it very seriously. They contacted the families to meet with them about the incident and included the school counselor. … I was assured that this type of behavior would not be tolerated.”

Margery Smelkinson, an MCPS parent who co-leads the Maryland Jewish Alliance, a Facebook group for parents concerned about antisemitism, said MCPS administrators “rarely talk about Jews, do not appear to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month, or even discuss antisemitism.” Smelkinson added, “Even before Oct. 7, there were lots of swastikas and derogatory comments. If there were email communications from administrators to the community about it, they would say, ‘We don’t support hate speech,’ but in the end, no one was ever punished.” Beyond that, “there’s a lot of online bullying, but some schools claim they are at a loss for what to do with that.”

The allegations aren’t just online behavior. Melissa Stein, a parent and former teacher in the system as well as board member of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, a parent stakeholder group that works directly with MCPS’s board and leadership, described a January middle school incident featuring such taunts as “of course a Jew is telling me how it is” and telling a non-Israeli Jewish boy “to ‘go back to Israel.’” The incident continued until there were “three mentions of Hitler.” Only then, “the teacher intervened.”

“I was an MCPS elementary teacher until January a year ago,” Stein recalled. “During our professional week, a day in August 2022, every teacher spent half or two-thirds of a day doing anti-racist training, because the county invested in an anti-racist audit. They taught everything you do is either racist or anti-racist. We were taught by MCPS as teachers to accept that as fact.” There was no antisemitism training.

One parent told the Washington Examiner about their children being asked by a cafeteria worker if they “liked Palestine” when receiving kosher meals. Another described a Nazi salute directed at her son during the national anthem. 

High school supercharges the hostility. Rachel Barold was a freshman in December 2022 when her high school was graffitied with “Jews not welcome.” In response, she organized a 600-student walkout. The Washington Post then reported that two debate team members “allegedly joked about using challah to lure Jewish people to the secluded Andaman Islands and burning them at the stake.” Barold was the second name listed, she said. 

Barold gave her principal high marks for addressing antisemitism. Unfortunately, there’s been “a lot of antisemitism” there since Oct. 7. “It’s almost cool to hate Jews, to be anti-Israel. It’s very hip. A lot of students take it that if you want to be a Democrat, you can’t support Israel. They get that from social media [and] various politicians.” And since the curriculum isn’t focused on teaching about Jews, Israel, or antisemitism, misinformation frequently remains uncontested. 

“Most kids are on TikTok 1-4 hours a day,” Barold said. It’s important that students “get facts before they hear something wrong on the internet.” Indeed, a recent study found “spending at least 30 minutes a day on TikTok increases the chances a respondent holds antisemitic or anti-Israel views by 17% (compared with 6% for Instagram and 2% for X).”

County school officials did not respond to a request for comment.

But it’s a trend seen all over the country. “We had a speaker compare Jews to Nazis in the ninth grade,” said Dr. Logan Levkoff, an independent school parent in New York who’s had two very different school experiences. “My son was called an ethnic cleanser by a student. He had one-sided speakers — plural — blaming only Jews in Israel for what’s happened between Israel and the Palestinians. They had two speakers from J Street, who were supposed to be thoughtful but focused only on one side. When my son said, ‘Hey, there seems to be part of the story missing,’ the conversation was shut down. He had teachers who told students that Soviet anti-Zionism was a legitimate political movement and had nothing to do with antisemitism.”

A common thread is an ideology that divides the world into two distinct groups: oppressors and the oppressed. “The first thing is the oppressor versus oppressed binary that all of these other things are built upon,” said Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky, director of education and community engagement with the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. “What’s in that framework is the belief in an anti-capitalist idea that is a tentacle of white supremacy. It feeds the old and long-lasting trope against Jews as the ultimate bad actor capitalists, which comes from neo-Marxism … if we’re in a school critiquing white supremacy that believes that the ‘ultimate white’ is Jews, and Israel gets that overlaid, Israel is the ultimate ‘white supremacist’ state.”  

Paul Rossi is a ninth grade math teacher in the Bronx, former teacher at Manhattan’s Grace Church School, and leader of Terra Firma Teaching Alliance, a networking and support group for traditional teachers. “Everything is relational,” he said. “Any antisemitism from the Right, [the school] will say, ‘This is wrong. It’s terrible. We need to fight this.’ But when it’s intersectionally inconvenient like Oct. 7, or self-defense on the part of Israel, the Jewish identity falls in the wrong bucket. You’re on the side of colonialism and Western exploitation. It’s a deeply uncomfortable thing.”

That discomfort can be widely felt, as this worldview “creates division where there doesn’t need to be any. When you start putting the focus on the differences, children don’t learn to see the commonalities,” said Kate Hudson, founder of Education Veritas, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about goings-on in public and nonpublic education from kindergarten through college.

This ideology brooks no dissent. “It’s an orthodoxy. This is why it looks, feels, and smells like a cult. You can’t question,” Shufutinsky said.

Indoctrination also starts early. “This starts in pre-K. As soon as they get into school, they are slowly cajoled into this way of thinking,” Rossi said. “Jewish students are lumped into white people. That trumps anything, any type of ethnicity or religion they have, so inclusion goes out the window on those kinds of things. … What matters is your proximity to whiteness. Whiteness is the big evil.” This is a central article of faith.

David Bernstein, founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and the author of Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, explained, “Only people with lived experience of oppression are permitted to, and have the standing to, define oppression for the rest of society.” This typically excludes Jews. “Historic discrimination against Jews is whitewashed or minimized or otherwise disregarded in favor of modern marginalized groups,” civil injury lawyer David Pivtorak said. 

“If you want to believe oppressed people can never succeed, you have to explain the Jews. … The whole narrative falls apart with the Jews. They’re ‘white supremacists,’ or benefit from ‘white supremacy culture,’ so they become a scapegoat because they undermine the core narrative of wokeism,” observed Andrew Gutmann, the father who wrote the viral Brearley letter as a New York City independent school parent, has since dug into these ideas, and is now running for Congress in Florida. “The progressive ideology that has infused K-12 education — you can’t separate that from the antisemitism,” but antisemitism is “not the driving force.”

Shufutinsky offered another view: “I don’t want to minimize that here in the United States the overall target is the West. But since Oct. 7, it feels like [Jews] are the target. That’s why we’re now seeing protesters in the streets of New York chanting, ‘There is only one solution, communist revolution. Intifada, intifada.’” 

“DEI efforts are designed to combat the effects of social prejudice by insisting on equity: Some people in our society have too much power and too much privilege, and are overrepresented, so justice requires leveling the playing field,” Dara Horn wrote in the Atlantic. “But antisemitism isn’t primarily a social prejudice. It is a conspiracy theory: the big lie that Jews are supervillains manipulating others. The righteous fight for justice therefore does not require protecting Jews as a vulnerable minority. Instead it requires taking Jews down.” 

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an international nonpartisan education organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism, said StandWithUs has noted an increase in these views: “We are addressing numerous instances of biased or one-sided materials used in classrooms across the country about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and current events. Our student leaders are being bullied online and in person for having a connection to Israel. There are also instances of physical threats and violence against Jewish students.” For American Jews, “normal” is being redefined.

Parents report that DEI has flooded independent schools. Gutmann observed, “This ideology has been entrenched in the K-12 pedagogical ecosystem, in the teachers’ education, [and] in the professional development teachers have been doing for a very long time.” 

Lessons can apply to parents, too. Recalling his experience three school years ago, Gutmann said, “We had to do mandatory anti-racist training. [Brearley] made us do it, so we saw it firsthand. They tried to force us to sign a pledge that not only would we support anti-racism initiatives at school, but also in our home. We refused.” 

A school spokesperson emailed, “Each year at Brearley, we require one parent from each family to attend curriculum night, parent/teacher conferences, and a learning session designed to engage them as members of our diverse community. This year’s choices for that session have included talks on antisemitism, Islamophobia as well as new parents getting to know one another. We do not ask parents to sign a pledge.”

Accreditation is another vector. Gutmann noted, “Technically the regional accreditors accredit schools, but NAIS [National Association of Independent Schools] accredits the regional accreditors, so they can mandate schools have to do DEI.” 

DEI also informs NAIS’s national conferences. Numerous interviewees expressed concerns about the annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference. The last SDLC brought approximately 2,000 independent school students to St. Louis in December.

“The NAIS is pushing activism with these students,” Hudson said. “That’s part of the indoctrination they get at these conferences. These schools pay exorbitant fees for students and teachers to attend. … According to some who have attended, they have to sign an NDA when they go. They aren’t allowed to relay information from it. It’s oddly secretive.”

At the last conference, a student delivered extemporaneous remarks about the “genocide” in Gaza. He was applauded enthusiastically by the audience, but one Jewish mother described her daughter’s traumatized reaction to being one of 20-30 Jewish students in a large crowd cheering antisemitism. Other adults reported similar anxiety and a desire to leave early from other Jewish attendees they knew.

An NAIS spokesperson described the SDLC as a conference that “helps students develop cross-cultural communication skills and learn the foundations of allyship and networking. … The conference aims to help students navigate complex and often challenging conversations respectfully. Students are invited to share their perspectives in various settings during the conference. The remarks in question came from a student commenter. Some students were deeply offended by the comments. These students reached out to SDLC faculty members, who worked to support them and to facilitate discussions. As an organization, NAIS condemns antisemitism in all forms, and our work — at SDLC and more broadly — strives to embrace diversity and champion inclusivity. These values continue to guide everything we do.”

For an era whose byword is “inclusivity,” this school year’s seen a lot of exclusion, from college campuses to K-12 schools. It doesn’t help that so many educational leaders not only seem unclear about what antisemitism is, but also seem disinterested in leading on it.

Some interviewees would be content if their schools’ DEI staff started including Jewish children and content. However, save for the rare exception, DEI staff hasn’t reciprocated that interest.

DEI creates problems for both the included and excluded. Dr. Staci Weiner, clinical psychologist and owner of Apple Psychological, a group private practice in New York and Florida, observed, “If you’re saying you’re born ‘oppressed,’ then you might believe you have no chance to be successful. In other words, ‘You might as well give up now, because you were born into this life and your actions cannot help you define who you are as a person.’” Meanwhile, “if you’re ‘the oppressor,’ and you’re convinced of that, you might feel you have to apologize or feel ashamed for something you haven’t done. We are creating roles, oppressed [and] oppressor, and pigeonholing people before kids are even figuring out who they are or want to be.”


“That’s psychologically harmful too,” Weiner said. “I worry about kids feeling disempowered. The narrative that we tell ourselves is who we inherently become. Our self-talk is extremely important in shaping the decisions we make and the path we take toward the future.”

The harm to Jewish students has been very visible this school year, but it will ripple throughout a whole generation. Without a change, the American future will not only be balkanized but could look like the explosive anti-Western, antisemitic fall of 2023. What are we, as a country, going to do about it?

Melissa Langsam Braunstein (@slowhoneybee) is an independent writer in metropolitan Washington.

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