We Need to Talk to Teens about Antisemitism — But It Won’t Be Easy



If you grew up like I did — a Jewish kid in 1990s American suburbia — chances are you didn’t think much about antisemitism. We all knew about Jew hate, of course. But it was part of history, something that happened in the past tense. It was something that happened to them, to those older Jews, not to us. As Jewish millennials, we enjoyed the luxury of historical and geographical distance from the realities of hate. We went to the Holocaust museum; we weren’t in the museum. We watched “Schindler’s List”; we weren’t in “Schindler’s List.” We expected full access to jobs, to property ownership and to professional schools. We thought of ourselves as equals. My generation may have even happily believed that antisemitism was over. Yes, we knew not to sing a Hebrew song in public and never to mention we were Jewish in front of a stranger. Now and then, we may even have heard rumblings about a swastika spray-painted on a synagogue, but it was quickly removed. Mostly, if you grew up like I did, watching “Beverly Hills, 90210” and dialing into AOL, then you were on a pretty good vacation from antisemitism. You looked at it; it didn’t really look at you.

Compare this reality with the reality of teens today. A swastika is drawn in the bathroom of a high school and the administration doesn’t respond appropriately, if at all. Pennies are thrown at the feet of a Jewish child in the Manhattan public school system. Teens today listen to their pop stars go on antisemitic rants, they watch athletes they admire support antisemitic conspiracy theories and they see a tech billionaire threaten to sue the Anti-Defamation League. And they live on TikTok and Snapchat where they’ve come to accept that antisemitic images and ideas are a part of their everyday life.

In the span of a generation, antisemitism has shifted from background to foreground. Today, young Jews no longer have the ability to distance themselves from this age-old hate. Unlike my generation, they are not growing up while merely looking at antisemitism. Antisemitism is looking right back at them.
So we have to talk with young people about antisemitism — urgently. But how are we, millennials and older generations who have only a mere morsel of the lived experience of antisemitism of teenagers, supposed to talk to teens about this hate?

It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Because in addition to the generation gap, antisemitism can be hard to name. Yes, there are the obvious signs — the Nazi marches, the swastikas, the slurs. But so much of the hatred that young people encounter today is diffuse and confusing, messy and amorphous, coded and hidden. In this world of social media, cancel culture, virtue signaling, dog whistling and political polarization, antisemitism somehow feels more slippery than ever.

And you may be hesitant to talk about antisemitism. You may feel like you know nothing about it. You don’t know Jewish history or much about being Jewish at all — whether you are Jewish or not. Or, you may feel like you know a lot about antisemitism but in a dramatically different way than the contemporary Jew hatred that teens are exposed to today. Or, you may hesitate to talk about antisemitism with young people because you feel that you’ve lived a blessed life and so you can’t authentically address it.

But talk about it we must, because teens are out there experiencing anti-Jewish sentiment — in some cases, on a daily basis. In K-12 schools, from 2021-2022, antisemitic incidents rose 49%. These incidents included harassment, vandalism and even assaults. I fear the 2023 statistics will be much worse. We can’t leave teens to fight this fact alone. So here are three ideas to get us started talking to young people about this ancient hate.

Step one — validate rather than diminish their experiences. Validating someone seems like an obvious response, but it can be hard when it comes to antisemitism because we often make the mistake of using the worst antisemitism as a yardstick. I have heard adults explain that the antisemitism of today is nothing compared to the antisemitism of the past. There are no roundups or selections. Our children don’t have to routinely hide under the kitchen table like my great grandmother did for fear of an encroaching army of antisemites. Teens are sometimes told to lighten up because it’s not as bad as it was, and that’s true — thank God. But antisemitism is real and upsetting, no matter how big or small. And it’s unacceptable. So we must listen to our children’s concerns and questions and respond by affirming that they are right — there is something alarming, scary and troubling about the direction we are going.

Step two is to share what you can. Share one time you stood up against antisemitism and one time you didn’t. Talk about why and how. I’ll go first. I saw a Radical Hebrew Israelite preaching on the street outside of West Elm the other day. He had horribly offensive cartoon images of Jews with him. I did nothing. I kept walking. I don’t know why. Antisemitism is hard to stand up to. It can be uncomfortable, confrontational and, at worst, unsafe. But by sharing our own vulnerabilities with young people we will enable them to do the same. Opening the door to these complex conversations will help teens know that they can’t and don’t have to fight this hate at every moment. We all struggle and we will struggle but at least if we talk about it, it will be together.

Step three is to find a Jewish community — a synagogue, a friend group, an after-school program, anything. Antisemitism can feel overwhelming and it can be isolating for teens and parents alike. We need to lean on each other, not just to talk about antisemitism but to live a Jewish life. Jews have fought this ancient hate for generations. We are not the first and not likely to be the last either. And we’ve fought back together. We can be our own think tank of sorts and strategize and commiserate and also celebrate being Jewish — as long as we are in community with each other.

Talking with teens about antisemitism is not a choice — it’s an urgent mandate. They are the ones most regularly experiencing antisemitism and, in many cases, they have peers exacerbating it. But antisemitism is too big for one generation to fight alone, so let’s start talking.

Diana Fersko is the author of “We Need to Talk About Antisemitism” and the senior rabbi of the Village Temple in Manhattan.

This article is part of Variety’s Antisemitism and Hollywood package and was written before October.


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