With friendships shifting, academic pressures mounting and physical changes happening either too fast or too slow, most middle school students are awash in anxiety. Increasingly, Jewish tweens now have to face another, more threatening challenge, one that experts tie to a toxic cultural and political environment in the country: anti-Semitic bullying.

According to a new report released by the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents have risen sharply over the past year, with the biggest increase taking place at schools. Victims as young as 10, the report finds, are being bullied with swastika graffiti and such comments as “go back to the concentration camp” and threats that they would be “burned like they did in the Holocaust.”

The report, released late last week, shows that New York State had the largest increase in incidents, with 267 reported in the first three quarters of 2017, up 98 percent from the 136 reported in the same period in 2016. Nationally, the ADL counted 1,299 incidents for the first three quarters of 2017, a 67 percent jump from the same period in 2016, when 779 incidents were reported.

The significance of the figures in this report is mitigated somewhat because the numbers reflect the dozens of bomb threat calls to JCCs last year that were hoaxes perpetrated by one 19-year-old Israeli man believed to have psychological issues. Also, the number of physical assaults dropped considerably, from 29 in the first three quarters of 2016 to 12 during the same period this year.

Still, given the frequency of incidents, the ADL has begun to issue reports more frequently than its traditional yearly tallies; the current report is the second one this year.

A Vanguard America poster at the University of Houston.
COURTESY OF THE ADL

Most striking in the report is that the population facing the largest increase in incidents is children. In 2017, 269 incidents were reported at elementary, middle and high schools — more than double the 130 reported over the same period in 2016.

The incident involving the 10-year-old was unspecified bullying in Laguna Beach, Calif.; in Denver, an elementary school student was bullied with such comments as “all Jews lie”; and in Healdsburg, Calif., a sixth-grade boy was taunted in class with swastikas by classmates who also brought cigarette lighters to school and said they would burn him “like they did in the Holocaust.”

“The increase on campuses is larger than the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the rest of the country,” said Aryeh Tuchman, associate director at the ADL’s Center on Extremism. “This is especially true not of college campuses but of K-12 [schools].”

Given the current political climate, he said, perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. “Kids pick up on what they hear at home, what they hear in the culture, and then perhaps they act out on it more readily than adults who may have learned to temper themselves,” he said.

On the elementary-school level, often the harassment takes the form of “jokes,” he said, such as: “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? A pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven.”

“That’s the type of thing that students report hearing from their peers,” Tuchman said. And, because the vast majority of anti-Semitic incidents taking place at schools are dealt with internally and never reported, “the number that we hear of anti-Semitic incidents at school is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

ADL’s New York regional director, Evan Bernstein, said it’s important to remember that the individuals behind the numbers are deeply affected. “We have to understand that there is real pain behind these numbers,” he said.

Tuchman agreed: “I can just imagine what it must be like for a Jewish kid to have to go to school in an environment where they’re being subjected to jokes like that,” he said. “The thought that that’s what’s going on in our schools is really troubling.”

On the middle- and high-school level, harassment included Jewish students being told to “Go back to the oven” and “go back to the concentration camp”; Nazi salutes; students drawing swastikas on their hands so they could wave them at Jewish classmates; and bullies throwing coins at Jewish students and telling them to pick them up. Swastika graffiti was widespread.

The most surprising event reported occurred in Katy, Texas, where a high school history teacher told students during a lesson on World War II that Hitler wanted to annihilate the Jews because the Jews killed Jesus.

On the college level, there has also been a large jump in incidents, especially in white supremacist activities on campus. There were 118 anti-Semitic incidents reported in the first nine months of 2017, compared to 74 in the same period of 2016, an increase of 59 percent.

One reason for the increase, said Bernstein, is that extremist groups are increasingly recruiting through social media.

“There’s more effort online and on Twitter and on college campuses from the alt-right,” he said. “We’re seeing things from [alt-right leaders and groups] Richard Spencer, Vanguard America, Identity Evropa. Groups that might have been much more on the fringe a couple of years ago are feeling more emboldened, are more out there and are looking mainstream. … I think that’s one of the reasons you’re now seeing this expansion.”

After the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., there was a distinct spike in anti-Semitic activity, including the distribution of white supremacist fliers; the report cites 188 such distributions, most of them on college campuses.

In one dramatic example, fliers posted at the University of Minnesota in February said: “White Man, are you sick and tired of the Jews destroying your country through mass immigration and degeneracy? Join us in the struggle for global white supremacy.”

Campus incidents also included drawings and carvings of swastikas and graffiti with such phrases as “Jews are a virus” (New York University); “The ovens were too small! Heil” (Columbia University, in a library book); “9/11 was Jewish lightning,” “Throw the Jew down the well” and “Grab him by the horn and our planet will be free” (Brooklyn College).

“There is a breakdown in civility in general in this country, and that may lead to people who in the past may have kept their anti-Jewish bias hidden or private may now feel more free to express that publicly,” said Tuchman.

Although white supremacists threaten both blacks and Jews, Lecia Brooks, director of outreach at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she has heard of little cooperation between the two to fight the threats and attacks, in large part, she said, because a lot of people don’t realize that swastikas represent anti-Semitism as well as racism.

“Oftentimes, sadly, I think Jewish students are often left to answer these incidents on their own and don’t get the type of support that other groups do,” she said.

Brooks suggests that universities take more active roles when white supremacist speakers come to campus, condemning them strongly and organizing teach-ins and other events to “to educate the students about how the white nationalist groups are seeking to divide them and how the campus is working directly against that.”

The good news, she said, is that when administrations do take an active role, “Oftentimes it does bring the community together … because groups come together to denounce these speakers,” she said.

Bernstein also believes education is the best way to address the problem, for younger students as well as at the college level. “Local police feel that a lot of the swastika-ing that is taking place, and that’s the gross majority [of incidents], are done by young people who maybe don’t have a full understanding of what the swastika means, or if they do it’s an opportunity for education and not necessarily for punishment,” said Bernstein.

The ADL has brought its education program “No Place for Hate” to more than 140 schools in the New York metropolitan area during the 2016-2017 school year, training over 400,000 students, Bernstein said.

“If we don’t do this and we don’t put a line in the sand with these young people and tell them it’s not acceptable, it’s going to be something that is going to continue,” he said, “and it’s continuing at a rate that’s really disturbing.”