How Another High School Responded to Antisemitism–in 1944

by Rafael Medoff

Were the pro-Hamas students who recently rampaged through a Queens high school really just “doing what 14 and 15 year olds do,” as New York City’s school chancellor claims?

The example set by the principal of another Queens high school, back in 1944, suggests there may be more effective ways to deal with antisemitism than making excuses for the troublemakers.

The disturbing developments at Hillcrest High School began when one of the teachers recently committed the high crime of posting a photo of herself at a pro-Israel rally on her personal Facebook page.

She didn’t post the photo on the school’s web site or tack it up on a bulletin board near the cafeteria. It was in her personal space, in her personal time. But four hundred students responded by running through the Hillcrest High hallways for hours on November 20, waving Palestinian flags, damaging school property, and chanting for the teacher to be fired. Some of them posted threats against the teacher on social media.

The teacher was forced to hide in a locked office for hours, fearing what the students might do if they could get their hands on her. The spectacle of a Jew cowering in fear as an angry mob seeks to do her harm inevitably conjures up images of horrors from the not so distance past.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, denounced the students’ riot as “a vile act of antisemitism” on X (formerly Twitter).

But School Chancellor David Banks downplayed the severity of the students’ action. “So many of the students who were running or jumping had no idea what was even going on. They were doing what 14- and 15-year-olds do,” Banks said at a November 27 press conference.

Instead of immediately penalizing the students, Banks said he has been trying to understand what “triggered” their behavior. And he came up with a theory: it’s all TikTok’s fault. The scenes that “young people today” see on TikTok and other social media platforms are “children and young people in Palestine, Palestinian families being blown up.” As a result, “they feel a kindred spirit with the folks in the Palestinian community,” Banks theorized.

The first problem with Banks’s theory is that sympathetic images of Gazans are not the only images available on TikTok. There are also photographs and videos pertaining to the 1200 Israelis who were beheaded, raped, tortured, and massacred by Hamas terrorists on October 7. And of the recently-released Israeli hostages whom Hamas starved, tortured, and kept in cages and in darkness for weeks on end.

The second problem with the chancellor’s analysis is that TikTok is not the only influence in the students’ lives. They have teachers. They have parents. Many have older siblings. It may be that the rampaging 14 year-olds, on their own, were able to quickly acquire Palestinian flags to wave in the halls of Hillcrest High School. But has it occurred to Chancellor Banks that maybe somebody other than TikTok gave them the flags or encouraged them to embrace hateful ideas?

  Banks’s attempt to “understand” the student mob went further.

“When they all of a sudden saw this image of the teacher that says, ‘I Stand With Israel,’ the students articulated to me they took that as a message that ‘I’m affirming whatever is happening to the Palestinian family and community’,” he said. “That made sense to me.”

That made sense? It made sense that privately supporting Israel’s existence and opposing the rape and torture of Israeli women is somehow “affirming whatever is happening to the Palestinian community”? Who is teaching these students basic logic or critical thinking?

A more principled and effective response to antisemitism among high school students may be found in the example set by a courageous German-American high school principal in Queens back in 1944.

In February of that year, five students from Andrew Jackson High School—just four miles from the scene of the recent riot—were caught painting antisemitic slogans in Queens Village. Principal Ralph W. Haller, a German-American, did not respond by searching for “triggers” or trying to get in touch with the rioters’ feelings.

Instead, Haller announced what the New York Times described 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, Principal 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 to note. In Germany, the land from which Haller’s family had come, high school principals openly encouraged antisemitism. And here in the United States, levels of antisemitism had reached an historic high, with the support of pro-Nazi 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. Perhaps today’s New York City school officials can learn from his example about the dangers of treating hateful behavior with kid gloves.

(December 2023)