Truck protest teaches timely lessons about the current face of antisemitism

“We have swastika graffiti and hateful words at our schools pretty much every week,” spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz, Toronto District School Board and chair of the board’s Jewish Heritage Committee, says.

Last week was no exception: students at a North York school fashioned swastikas out of plastic blocks in class. This incident followed a similar one in December in which students demonstrated the Nazi salute in front of their peers.

This week was no exception either: On Tuesday parents of a different North York school were informed that a teacher had been placed on home assignment after claiming making a comparison in class popular among anti-vaxxers, between vaccine mandates and the yellow Stars of David forcibly affixed to the clothing of Jewish people before and during the Holocaust.

As a Jew, which incident of the three do you think scared me most? It wasn’t the swastika block display or the “Heil Hitler.” If true, it was the teacher who diminished the murder of six million Jews. It’s the possibility that the insidious breed of antisemitism woven into anti-vaccine and other conspiratorial movements showed itself in a Toronto classroom.

I’m not downplaying the ugliness or the seriousness of swastikas scribbled on walls. The kids who draw them or build them out of blocks should be made to understand in the sternest terms possible what they have done and who they have hurt. Often times they don’t know. According to Schwartz-Maltz, “when you go deeper there is almost always a lack of knowledge.”

In other words, kids who draw Nazi symbols tend to have a limited knowledge — if any — about what they’re drawing. But most presumably want to know. According to a recent survey of North American teens by the Holocaust education charity Liberation75, 92 per cent of Ontario students said they wanted to learn more about the Holocaust.

These students will be well served by the Ministry of Education’s new partnership with Jewish groups to integrate Holocaust education into Ontario classrooms before high school. (The Holocaust doesn’t appear on the curriculum in Ontario officially until Grade 10.)

According to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, the ministry recently “announced a partnership with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs to increase Holocaust education for all students, especially our youngest learners, and develop resources and training to fight antisemitism in Ontario schools.”

If you’re of the mind that sexual education should begin before high school to account for the fact that kids see and hear things online today that previous generations didn’t, then the same logic should apply to Holocaust education, antisemitism, white supremacy and media literacy.

Students spend an amount of time in front of screens consuming gaming and social media content that is sometimes rife with antisemitic tropes and conspiracies about Jewish power. Often this hatred is not cloaked in a swastika but rather, a smirk. A frog meme. An affable YouTube personality. A seemingly innocent, almost admiring, question about why the Jews are so small in number yet so “influential.”

Which brings me back to the alleged incident involving the TDSB teacher. It’s easy to explain to a kid why drawing a swastika is wrong. It’s harder to explain to a kid why comparing vaccine mandates to the Yellow Star is wrong, and yet this is arguably the brand of antisemitism they are more likely to encounter today, online and in popular discourse.

Yes, I’m aware of a Nazi flag as well as other hate symbols were spotted at the anti-vaccine protests in Ottawa. A lot of attention was paid to this flag as it should have been. But here’s where modern hate gets tricky. It’s important to note that many protesters convoy themselves instantly denounced the swastika flag as proof of their virtuousness, despite their own tendencies to push antisemitic conspiracy theories online, don yellow stars and pal around with or tolerate the presence of full-on bigots.

Listen to their voice notes or read their posts on the social media platforms that will still have them and their position is clear: they don’t like swastikas, but they hate “globalists.” They don’t like Nazis, but right-wing activist Pat King (who posted a video decrying the “depopulation” of the white race) is misunderstood. Swastikas are out. Posters listing the names of all the Jews who work at the Centers for Disease Control are in.

Do you catch my drift?

It’s entirely possible the teacher who allegedly made the gross comparison between a reasonable public health measure and Jewish genocide is merely ill-informed, not prejudiced. But if the incident did occur, the teacher very likely picked that comparison up not at a neo-Nazi rally but on a glossy Instagram page.

This is why my hope is that the ministry’s newly announced Holocaust education initiative covers far more than the Holocaust itself: for example, how white supremacists have ditched the swastika for veiled expressions of hatred more palatable to the average person — student and teacher alike. It sounds as though it will. According to the ministry, “Parent resources will also be developed on how antisemitism manifests on social media and online gaming.”

Good. Ugly as it is, a swastika on a school wall can be rubbed out. The subtle stuff is harder to erase.

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