If you ask my children, they will tell you that I spend a great deal of time talking to them about Jewish pride, antisemitism and our extraordinary history, despite being .2% of the global population. There was a moment when I devoted as much airtime to issues of sexuality (I mean, that is my profession), but my focus has changed. I could never have imagined that I would have needed to go so hard on these Jewish-related subjects.
I grew up with my grandparents sharing stories about their own experiences with Jew-hate, but I naively couldn’t have fathomed that over half a century later, we would still be dealing with the same old bigotry. I suppose there’s a reason why antisemitism is the oldest conspiracy theory. It doesn’t really ever go away. I have said it before: Antisemitism is a shape-shifting monster. Whether it is violent and overt or based in tropes or coded language, it is all the same.
I would love to say that we could wait until a magical age to start these conversations, but kids are savvy. They hear the news (even when we think we’ve changed the channel in time). They see the security at our synagogues. All of these are natural entry points for conversations. And consider your own experiences with antisemitism as a young person. People don’t wait until you’re a teenager to say or do something antisemitic. It is far better to give your children the tools to navigate this in advance.
Parents need to be honest, treat the subject and their children with respect, instill pride, help kids to develop the skills to speak up and to become resilient, and we must be willing to listen, too. I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy; it’s just necessary. So take a breath and buckle up.
1. Location matters. Choose a place and a moment when everyone is relaxed. Of course, if you are reacting to something (like a hate crime in the news) as opposed to being proactive, you may not have that luxury. But be prepared for lots of little conversations about this topic — not just one.
2. Admit that this is a hard topic to talk about. Conversations about hate, particularly when it is directed at you or your people, feel raw and painful and near impossible. But we do it anyway. “I want to talk to you about something really important and it’s not an easy subject to speak about. So I’m sorry in advance if I don’t have all the answers.” It’s OK to admit that we have our limitations. But we have to be committed to helping our children get the answers that they need. It’s on us to follow through.
3. Share our Jewish pride. Explain how we are an extraordinarily diverse and wonderful ethnoreligion with thousands of years of history. We, Jews, are not solely a faith. We are a peoplehood. We began thousands of years ago in the land that is today called Israel and even though we have been exiled or persecuted in almost every geographical location around the globe, time and again, we have survived. Our existence is a miracle and our traditions and values have sustained us through all of this time. We are connected to Jews all over the world.
4. Claim your truth. There have always been people and movements who have tried to explain who Jews are and what they stand for. They may say horrible and nasty things because they don’t care to understand (or they’re just bigots). They have been taught to hate or be afraid of difference, but we don’t let other people define Jews or Judaism. It is ours and it is beautiful.
5. Not everyone (even adults) understand how antisemitism functions. Kids often perceive hate to be violent actions or symbols of hate, but antisemitism isn’t always that. Explain how antisemitism takes many forms: conspiracies, stereotypes, physicality, jokes, insults. Ask them if they know any stereotypes or hateful sayings. If they don’t, you can offer them some examples as watch-outs: Jews are all rich and only care about money; Jews control the world and/or the media; Jews are responsible for poverty; Jews are responsible for COVID; the Holocaust wasn’t real; the old dual loyalty trope, etc. I wouldn’t suggest sharing all of these at once — it can be overwhelming. But you should prep them for the things that they might see and hear.
6. Teach them to trust their instinct. Even if they can’t identify antisemitism in its entirety, kids often get an “icky” (for lack of a better term) feeling when something seems wrong. Our children should know that they have the right to say “that’s hurtful” or “that seems antisemitic to me” if a friend or classmate (or even a teacher) makes a negative comment about Jews or Judaism. But along with that, help them to make a list of people they can talk to at school or other places if you’re not around and something feels hateful or wrong.
7. Share our stories of resilience. The Jewish people are remarkable. We need to uplift our stories of survival and not just the terrible truths of antisemitism. We might be .2% of the population but we are mighty. Highlight the members of our incredibly diverse community all over the globe. Yes, our historical persecution has given us transgenerational trauma, but with that we have also developed an acute sense of perception and vigilance, a commitment to education and a desire to share our stories so that our losses are never in vain.
Look, I understand that some of you are worried. You might be concerned about the innocence of your kids, but I promise, innocence is lost when our kids learn the harsh truths about the world from someone other than us. They will encounter antisemitism in some form; it’s up to us to give them the tools for how to handle it, emotionally, physically or verbally. And instilling in them a great sense of Jewish pride is a job we can do — and we can do it well.
Fighting hate is difficult. It teaches you very quickly about who your true friends are, what allyship really means and thickens your skin. I have reached the point in my life when I refuse to surround myself with people who perpetuate antisemitic rhetoric. I don’t care what your political values are or whether or not you are aligned with me on other things. Antisemitism is a deal breaker for me, and it should be for all of you. There is nothing more important than our humanity. Antisemitism denies us that, time and time again. We deserve better than that. So do our children.