Update: Governor Cuomo orders an investigation.
According to an article by Benjamin Weiser in today’s New York Times, “Swastikas, Slurs and Torments in Town’s Schools,” that was just one of the antisemitic jokes to which Jewish students in the Pine Bush Central School District were subjected on a regular basis. The article details a host of incidents from students who have reported “being pelted with coins, told to retrieve money thrown into garbage receptacles, shoved and even beaten.” One mother, who reported swastikas that her elementary school- age daughter saw drawn in school, says she was told by the assistant principal, “What’s the big deal? [The boys who did this] didn’t aim it towards [your daughter].” A former Pine Bush High School student is quoted as saying that he “learned very, very quickly not to raise my hand” when teachers would ask, around the Jewish holidays, if there were any Jewish students in class. Another girl told of how she once “saw a girl holding her hands up to hide a swastika on her face. The girl explained that a student had restrained her while another drew the insignia.”
The situation has gotten so bad that three families are suing the school district and its administrators in federal court, claiming the response to this pervasive antisemitism has been indifferent at best. The district, of course, is contesting the suit, insisting that it has responded appropriately. Whether or not that is the case is a question for the courts to decide, of course, but I do have sympathy for the point made by Philip G. Steinberg, Pine Bush’s superintendent from 2008 to 2013, , in an email he wrote to one parent who’d complained about the repeated harassment experienced by her daughter and another Jewish girl, “I have said I will meet with your daughters and I will, but your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic.” Weiser captures the extent and nature of that inbred prejudice quite well in this little vignette:
Most people interviewed — from a bagel shop owner to McDonald’s clerks, adults and teenagers alike — said they had not heard of the swastikas. But some said they were aware of bullying or hate-fueled teasing, including a middle-school student who said she knew a boy who had drawn swastikas on the back of their school.
“It’s just hate,” she said outside after school last month. “And just being kids.”
At that point, a pickup truck pulled up nearby, and a man emerged. The man, John Barker, 42, a mechanic, cautioned that “everybody watches out for everybody.” When asked about the presence of Jewish families, he blurted out, “We don’t want them in our town.”
“They can’t drive, for number one — and they already have Sullivan County. Who really wants them here? They don’t belong here.”
In the 1970s, the grand dragon of Independent Northern Klans Inc. lived in Pine Bush. The Anti-Defamation league is cited in the article as saying that there is little evidence of Klan activity in New York State in recent years, but clearly the Klan’s attitudes towards Jews persists.
The article brought back a lot of memories for me from when my family moved to Floral Park in Nassau County. I was in third grade and had never encountered antisemitism before, having lived until then in neighborhoods with sizable Jewish populations. It was very early in the school year, and it was the day after a couple of boys had asked me about my religion. One of them, John, came up to me in the playground the next day and told me his father had told him he wasn’t allowed to play with Jews; and just like the Jewish kids in Pine Bush, I had pennies thrown at me. Indeed, once, in fifth grade, more than a few students in my class—and, yes, this happened during class time—started to roll pennies at me across the floor saying things like, “Let’s see if the cheap Jew picks them up.” One kid actually walked up to me and handed me a roll of pennies. I don’t remember my teacher doing very much to stop them, though I imagine he must’ve done something, if only because the class was so out of control. More significantly, I don’t remember any discussion, ever, about the issue of Jew-hatred. No one in a position of authority, not once, at least as far as I remember, ever showed me any support, and not once was anyone disciplined for their antisemitic words or actions.
I could go on, listing more of my encounters with antisemitism, but I don’t have the energy to dredge all of that up yet one more time. (If you’re interested, I have written about that subject at length, though in a slightly different context, here and here.) Independently of my experiences, though, anyone who thinks that antisemitism is dead is dead wrong; and if you want proof, consider that nowhere does Weiser’s article even mention the possibility that the Pine Bush community, or any non-Jewish component of the Pine Bush community, has rallied or might rally to support its Jewish families and to put an end to these expressions of hatred. That the entire community is giving tacit permission to the swastika-drawers, penny-throwers, and joke-tellers to continue—well, what that makes me feel right now is a fatigued and enraged sadness that leaves me pretty much speechless.