What you don’t know can’t hurt you, or so the saying goes. But have we ever considered: What you don’t know can hurt others?
As we witness a rise in antisemitism nationwide, we are also reminded of how little Americans know about Judaism and Jewish history. Recently, a shocking survey of adults between the ages of 18 and 39 found that one in eight (12%) of those questioned had not heard — or didn’t think they had heard — about the Holocaust, and nearly a quarter (23%) believe the Holocaust to be a myth, exaggerated, or they were unsure.
In addition to these figures, knowledge of Jewish tradition and practice is incredibly lacking. A 2019 Pew study found the average U.S. adult incapable of answering even half of a questionnaire on world religions correctly and less familiar with basic facts about Judaism (only three in 10 knowing that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday and a quarter knowing that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year).
What’s the harm in not knowing about Judaism?
Though not calculated hate crimes, incidents of offensive ignorance manipulate and misinterpret Jewish history and tradition — and usually for internet fame. Take for example the unsettling TikTok trend in which teens pretended to be Holocaust victims entering heaven. The creators of these videos were neither motivated by hate nor intending to be antisemitic. Some even claimed to be trying to “educate.” Still, their insensitive exploitation of the Holocaust rooted in their own lack of understanding was an offense to the memory of the real victims. This incident also reminded Jews of how little people know about Jewish beliefs on the afterlife, which do not include the Christian understanding of heaven.
Then there’s the mess that is Trisha Paytas, the social media celebrity known infamously for her habit of cultural appropriation. Also while claiming to inform, Paytas uses her platform to post videos of herself celebrating Jewish holidays while consistently spouting pure nonsense and misinformation in the name of Jewish tradition. Her Passover video includes her showing a Yahrzeit candle to the camera and saying, “It says something in Hebrew or Jewish or I don’t know. I think it’s all the same,” and that Passover is “not really just a Jewish thing. It’s like a freedom thing.” She also inexplicably throws a KFC chicken wing and an entire raw onion on the seder plate. I cringe with discomfort knowing this uninformed production is on the internet.
A very real fear is behind this discomfort: the fear in knowing that, with so little general knowledge of Judaism throughout the U.S., some may see these TikToks and videos and take them at face value. This fear speaks to the danger of not knowing about others’ religious traditions. We yearn for others to be educated with a basic understanding of what it means to be Jewish so that we are not so often misunderstood and misinterpreted. The solution is simple, and it’s education.
Yes, religion belongs in schools, and it belongs as a core discipline. I remember sensing this lack even at a young age. Starting in elementary school, as soon as I received a textbook, I would always flip to the index searching for Jew or Jewish, only to find no mention of Judaism at all, or, if any, a paragraph or less about the Holocaust within a chapter dedicated to WWII.
Holocaust education is typically pushed in response to antisemitism, but the Holocaust is only one part of a much larger history of the Jewish people. There are thousands of years of existence untouched (and modern understanding typically neglected) when the only time Jews are mentioned is Holocaust education. Evidently, in my searching, I wanted to but still could not find myself within my own studies, but more importantly, my peers were likely not receiving any sort of education on religions other than Christianity within or beyond the classroom.
This deficit of knowledge is not just coincidentally occurring alongside an increase in acts of ignorance and hatred. The same Pew survey mentioned earlier found the more knowledgeable people were on a religion, the more favorably they regarded it. In other words, the less someone knew about a religion, the more likely they were to actively rate it unfavorably.
Schools are key places to be confronting this lack of knowledge, not simply because they are educational institutions, but because they are places of interaction where unfortunately we are seeing the tragic results of this obvious educational deficit. In the ADL’s 2019 “Audit of Antisemitic Incidents,” they reported 411 incidents at K-12 non-Jewish schools, a 19% increase in one year. Schools are at the center of the rise of antisemitism, making it their responsibility to work against it.
I speak from experience. I grew up going to a K-12 private school with a very small Jewish population (a few students per grade, if any). A little over a year ago, my former school — where my siblings still were students — was finding papers covered in drawings of swastikas in middle school classrooms. When the school identified a student, the child was immediately expelled. The same day, the child’s parent called our home to ask if my mother could come to their home and explain to their child why what they had done was so wrong. My knee-jerk reaction was not as forgiving as my mom’s. She did agree to go and speak with them, and to my surprise, she said she felt like she actually got through to them.
I look back now and wonder if maybe this child truly did not know the gravity of those actions. Maybe that one conversation actually provided knowledge where ignorance taught hate.
Education on religion, especially religious minorities, must be an imperative core study. Identities beyond the privileged majority have too long been treated like elective material. Students need to be forced to look beyond themselves to attain a global perspective that will serve them long-term. I do not think students choose to be unaware of the beliefs around them, but they have simply never been expected to know or have the courtesy of understanding religious differences as it has not been a prioritized teaching.
Education can make the difference, and it is time that schools start making the effort before religious minorities are tasked with educating others in moments of offensive and ignorance-fueled hate. We should not have to offer up our identities to make up for the education schools are failing to provide.
Header image: Glasshouse Images/Getty Images.