Antisemitism in NYC Schools, Then and Now — and a German-American Who Fought Against It

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

How should a high school principal respond when some of his students engage in antisemitic activity?

That is the question faced by Henry C. Moses, headmaster of the Trinity School, an elite private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At a recent basketball game between Trinity and the Dalton School, a number of Trinity students repeatedly yelled antisemitic slurs at a Jewish-surnamed player from Dalton.

The taunts included “references to gefilte fish, yarmulkes, and other Jewish foods and customs,” according to the New York Times. A Jewish parent who witnessed the incident said that the antisemitic chants were “led by two or three Trinity students but endorsed by the snickering and giggling of perhaps two dozen more seated near them in the stands.” He said that several Trinity parents were seated in the same section, “but none tried to rein in the unruly behavior.”

Mr. Moses, the Trinity principal, has promised to investigate what happened and “take appropriate action,” although a school spokesman has said the results “will not be made public because the students are minors and entitled to privacy.”

No doubt some will counsel Mr. Moses to take a lenient view, treat the offense as the equivalent of child’s play, and give the offenders no more than a slap on the wrist. But a more principled and effective response may be found in the example set by a courageous German-American high school principal in Queens sixty years ago this week.

In early 1944, Ralph W. Haller, a German-American who was then principal of Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, faced a problem similar to that of Henry Moses and the Trinity School, when five of his students were caught painting antisemitic slogans in Queens Village.

Haller responded by announcing what the New York Times described (Feb. 13, 1944) as “an unprecedented step”–a new policy that any student involved in antisemitic acts would not be permitted to graduate.

At a meeting of parents on February 12, Mr. Haller explained his decision: “I consider such [antisemitic] activities totally in contradiction to everything that the America of today or the America which we hope to have tomorrow stands for.” Since he, as the principal, was authorized to deny a graduation diploma to any student who gave evidence of “poor American citizenship,” he vowed to henceforth classify antisemitic activity as un-American.

Haller noted that he had “counseled with many non-Jewish principals” as well as Assistant Superintendent of Schools William A. Hamm, and found them all in agreement with his choice of punishment. Haller emphasized that as a Protestant and a German-American, “I feel that I have the right and duty to speak out on this issue.”

The historical context of that episode is important. In Germany, the land from which Haller’s family had come, high school principals in Nazi Germany openly encouraged antisemitism. Here in the United States, levels of antisemitism had reached their historic high, with the support of groups such as the German-American Bund. Just a few years earlier, more than 20,000 Bund supporters had filled Madison Square Garden for a pro-Hitler rally.

Yet Ralph W. Haller, a German-American, stood apart–and stood up for what is right. Should a high school principal in New York City in 2004 be any more tolerant of flagrant antisemitic behavior from his students?

February 2004