Parents ask school district to adopt definition of antisemitism

School officials encourage students to report incidents of antisemitism

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School district officials are evaluating whether to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

The request to adopt the IHRA statement was made by parents, some of whom signed a Nov. 21, 2023 letter to school district officials that encouraged the district to address the rise in antisemitism.

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The IHRA statement, which is a non-binding working definition of antisemitism, has been discussed at the Princeton Public Schools’ Student Achievement Committee.

According to the IHRA, antisemitism is described as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

“Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities,” it states.

Examples include denying Jews their right to self-determination by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor, as well as applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded by any other democratic nation.

Other examples cited by www.holocaustremembrance.com include accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrong-doing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.

The IHRA was created in 1998 by former Swedish prime minister Goran Persson to promote Holocaust education and remembrance. Sweden officially took a neutral stance during World War II.

The goal of the IHRA is to “foster education, remembrance and research about what happened in the past (and) to build a world without genocide in the future,” according to www.holocaustremembrance.com.

The Holocaust is associated with the murder of six million Jews, but victims also included five million military prisoners of war, political prisoners, Romany (gypsies) and others that the Nazi Party deemed undesirable.

The Student Achievement Committee discussed adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism at its March 8 meeting, but no decision was made.

Several attendees spoke in favor of adopting the definition, but at least one attendee was opposed to it and favored a different definition of antisemitism.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Kathie Foster thanked the attendees for their research. She said she had reached out to other school district superintendents, but no public school district in New Jersey has adopted a statement on antisemitism.

Foster suggested reviewing the district’s Equity Statement and perhaps adding more language to it.

The Equity Statement, which is a commitment to anti-racism, equity and inclusion, “acknowledges that systemic racism and bias have existed and continues to exist within our district.”

“Students, staff and parents of all backgrounds, cultures, abilities and identities must be welcomed, safe, respected and included in our school community,” it states.

Everyone has a responsibility to speak out against racism and bias, and school district officials “will lead all district stakeholders in effecting an anti-racist and equitable environment,” the Equity Statement said.

The full text of the Equity Statement is on the school district’s website at www.princetonk12.org.

Foster said officials have heard that many students do not feel comfortable in reporting antisemitism. Officials need help in getting students to report those incidents.

No reports of HIB (harassment, bullying and intimidation) related to antisemitism have been filed, officials said.

“Antisemitism must be addressed because the district wants students to feel safe and secure,” Foster said.

School board president Dafna Kendal said some school board members are concerned about First Amendment rights and that the IHRA may stifle free speech.

“This is a heightened time for Jews and Palestinians,” Kendal said. “Parents are concerned about antisemitism, and students are concerned about physical violence against them.

“Physical violence is against school district policy and incidents would be reported to the Princeton Police Department. School district officials will not tolerate it.

“Regardless of whether the IHRA definition of antisemitism is adopted, students must feel safe.”

Meanwhile, the signers of the Nov. 21, 2023 letter to school district officials stated that the “unprecedented rise in antisemitism has made us fearful, especially seeing how it has spread and taken over many college campuses.”

The Princeton Public Schools is in a prime position to ensure that Princeton High School graduates “are prepared to lead lives of purpose and not hate,” the letter said.

The letter urged school district officials to create a unit on antisemitism education in the required “Pathways to Racial Literacy” course at Princeton Middle School and Princeton High School.

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