How Southern Teachers Can Fight Anti-Semitism

by Drs. Todd S. Hawley & Adam W. Jordan, with Dr. Rebekah Cordova

A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Photo: Andrea Hanks

A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Photo: Andrea Hanks


On October 27, we all watched the gut-wrenching, awful news out of Pittsburgh: members of the Tree of Life Synagogue gunned down by an angry man wielding a powerful firearm and a powerful hatred. The shooter, active in spreading vitriol from a keyboard, cited his desire for “all Jews to die” as he stood on the shoulders of ridiculous conspiracy theories and fired his AR-15, taking the lives of 11.

We watched. And wept. And cursed.

When the news broke, we were in the middle of planning our next few columns, and once again, as we’ve had to do so many times after shootings, we decided we needed to shift gears to more pressing matters.

As we watched the news, we talked via text and agreed on a a couple things:

  • When educators see hate, they must combat it. That’s the responsibility of every educator.

  • With the diminishing focus on the social sciences in K-12 education, we don’t focus enough on teaching a broad cultural awareness based on historical foundations in the South.

That second one may have caused some of you to pause. The social studies are being relegated to the land of electives, particularly in the younger grades. This move, originally made to focus on heavily tested areas such as reading and math, is not without consequence. In our Southern schools, we don’t focus to the level we should on understanding all the folks around us, and we rarely offer teachers the space or time to do so.

To keep pushing for a Better South, we must continually stop and ask who is being left out, inadvertently, when we say “all y’all.” As teachers, we have to fight to restore teaching spaces for the social studies. But we also need to integrate it into the spaces we already have to work with. We felt the news coverage and social media conversations after Pittsburgh confirmed a painful reality: When we say “all y’all,” we often turn a blind eye to Southern Jews. This was clear in our lack of ability to have discussions about the tragedy that were rooted in history.

To help us understand, we phoned our friend and colleague Dr. Rebekah Cordova and asked her to speak the words we struggled to find in the days post-Pittsburgh. Dr. Cordova focuses her work on social justice in the rural South. She co-founded the All Y’all Social Justice Collective, and she’s got something important to say. We hope you find her words as empowering as we do:

Harry Crews, one of my all-time favorite Southern writers, tells us this:

Nothing is allowed to die in a society of storytelling people. It is all — the good and the bad — carted up and brought along from one generation to the next. And everything that is brought along is colored and shaped by those who bring it.

While Crews isn’t speaking of Southern Jews in particular, I’ve always read this short passage as one that speaks to me as an Ashkenazi Jewish educator who comes from a lineage of external and internal conflict. I write today, representing the folks that came before me, both in the Confederate South and the Eastern European Jewish diaspora.

Before I move further down this road, let me be clear there is not one homogenous Jewish community in the South (or anywhere in the U.S.). The experiences of Ashkenazi Jews in Florida differ significantly from Sephardic Jews in South Carolina. The felt discrimination varies based on our localized and racialized experiences. Given that most hate crimes reported in 2018 targeted black folks, black Jews face both racism and anti-Semitism in ways not felt by white Jews. Even within our Southern Jewish communities, we often struggle to do right across difference among our own brothers and sisters. The work for justice is inter- and intra-community.

One practice that threads through our divisions is the art of the story. Storytelling holds a special place in Jewish households, because ritualistic connections to our ancestors and our faith are often best understood in story form. When we celebrate our history and struggle, we do so by telling and re-telling stories. Some of the older stories of the Jewish South that I’ve held dear to my heart go a little like this:

  • “It was easier and better to just wear the crucifix. When you wore it, there weren’t any questions. You fit, right away. And while it didn’t feel natural or honest, it felt like you were doing what our ancestors did — you hid to protect yourself.”

  • “No one suspects I am Jewish now because I made sure to get my nose done as soon as I could. Right after high school. My parents wanted to make sure I would have a better life than they had. This meant to never speak of our faith. To be Southern meant to go to church.”

  • “Most Southerners hate Jews … at least this is what I grew up thinking. Even though we were Southern, we had to pray at home (because there was no temple) – and pretend at school.”

Folks in the South know how religious communities affect social acceptance and trust. Church services, the fish-fry, summer camps — they all provide the threads that bind. Christian experiences, expressions, and language are embedded in much of Southern life and culture. In small or rural Southern areas, Christian prayers and language are the norm in larger-scale political systems (school and government procedures and practices), and they appear within seemingly casual regional affiliations of pride (see: SEC football attire). And while faith-based spaces in the South remain largely segregated, the overall assumption in public life is that the masses, across race, are Christian.

I think back to my own stories. As a child, while there was a lot of welcoming arms and warmth from folks, it was also clear that our family was sometimes suspect. I learned early on what it meant if you flew the Confederate flag, and I know what people said about you when you didn’t. You either had a church congregation, or you were an outsider. Looking back now, I can see it mattered less that my father’s family had hundreds of years of history attached to that Missouri/Arkansas borderland. There were socially acceptable ways of being in community with each other, and the primary one was through the church.

Suspicion, fear, and hatred of Jewish folks, of course, is not a problem relegated to the South. The Anti-Defamation League marked 2017 as the first time in at least a decade when incidents targeting Jews were reported in all 50 states. Specifically, anti-Semitic vandalism and threats increased by 57 percent in 2017 and then increased 23 percent in 2018, with a 250 percent increase of white-supremacist activity on college campuses during the 2016-17 academic year. What was most disturbing in ADL’s 2017 report? K-12 schools had more anti-Semitic incident reports than any other location: There were increases of 100 percent in both 2016 and 2017. Elementary, middle, and high schools even exceeded public spaces (such as parks and streets) as the locations with the most anti-Semitic incidents, surpassing homes, businesses, Jewish institutions, and college campuses.

The work to make the South a more inclusive place for Jews is daunting – particularly when neo-Confederate hate groups, like the League of the South, have grown by 23 percent in the last two years and continue to make gains in recruiting members by spreading anti-Semitic propaganda. In 2017, my home state of Florida was No. 2, behind only California, with the largest number of hate groups. Georgia and South Carolina also have seen steady increases since 2016.

What makes this era of hate so important to explore and understand is that the traditional hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, are actually on the decline in the South. The increase of hate crimes and anti-Semitic incidents come from a new brand of organized hate – one that has entered much of the mainstream consciousness through social media and grassroots alt-right activism. Now, we must find new stories to tell — now that we are two years into what the Southern Poverty Law Center documented as the Trump Effect on school climate; a year beyond the violent Unite the Right gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia; and just a few weeks past the Tree of Life Synagogue murders.

Still, old questions plague us when we ponder how to fight hate.

What does this mean for us as educators? Jews, especially those of us who work for racial and social justice, well know the lessons inside and outside of schools that have shaped our experiences and our beliefs. The early messaging around the shame I was supposed to feel about being Jewish, about being the “other,” is a story that has framed not only my life, but those of my ancestors, for thousands of years. And it continues even today, as I watch my own children navigate Southern schooling where many of their friends and teachers readily admit that they have never known another Jew before meeting my kids.

So what can we do? Much of what we know about bias tells us there are a few ways we can fight against it and keep it from manifesting into hateful action. One clear way is to educate and connect early. Early childhood experiences imprint our kids for life —who they grow up knowing and seeing as family, their obvservations of how other folks. Second, schools can play a major role in providing both educational content and experiences which counter and disrupt anti-Semitic sentiments.

To start, let’s recognize how students, their families, and communities are affected by school experiences. I break these up into four areas: Language/Messaging, Rituals/Experiences, Curriculum, and Relationships.


Educators can ask themselves:

  1. When reviewing the text-based messaging of our school and classroom, is the language grounded in religious theology and practice? Hint: What we describe as a “holiday” used to be called “holy days.” Lots of holiday messaging actually alienates and "others" many people in our communities. How can these messages be worded in a way that promotes kinship and love, versus reinforcing religious groupings?

  2. What types of tangible items are found in our classrooms that represent and normalize just one faith or religion and leave absent any others? In what ways is the physical space a representation of not only our “seen” communities, but also those that may be “hidden” or unacknowledged?


Honestly, many students carry into adulthood school rituals and experiences more than the lessons they learned in class. The rituals do so much to normalize certain aspects of a community, but do they also marginalize others? They can either make you feel welcome and at home, or like you just don’t belong. Two questions educators might ask:

  1. What are the celebrated school events that overtly assume student religious or cultural affiliations? Hint: If your school’s ONLY winter performance is Christmas-themed, you might want to re-think that.

  2. What daily, weekly, or seasonal rituals that occur within your school or classroom perpetuate the idea that students and community members are of one (or any) predominant religion or faith?


In this context, when I say curriculum, I mean the works students are explicitly asked to engage with. These would be the classroom assignments, the readings, the work we expect the students to do for grades. Curriculum can be chosen by the school, the district, or the teacher – but typically, it is created and then provided to students – it’s often pre-determined by educators at some level. The good news is this means it can also be re-created or modified to be inclusive for all sorts of folks. Here are some questions for educators looking at their curricula and wondering how they can shift their work to disrupt anti-Semitic ideas and cultivate a more expansive understanding of Jewish cultures:

  1. When have you explicitly discussed Jewish folks as part of your instruction? There is no need to wait until World War II and the Holocaust; you can start now with any grade level and in any content area.

  2. Does your curriculum represent only a certain population of students? What might seem “universal” might leave some of your students out of the conversation— or worse, making them feel evern more invisible.

  3. In what ways do you address issues and disrupt notions of anti-Semitism within your curriculum? Given how young people are when they first experience discrimination, there is no reason not to start this from the get-go in schools. Your task is to decide how, not if, you will do it in the classroom.

  4. What are your curricular resources? If you haven’t yet used the many organizations built to support your growth in addressing bias as an educator, then you can start now. You aren’t alone in this: Lean on others in our profession who have the experience and expertise to help you.


While school rituals, experiences, and messaging set the terms for an inclusive schooling experience, it is the teacher-student relationship that can literally save lives. When students and families know they have allies within the school, they know they aren’t alone. They know their world and their existence matters. Educators can ask themselves:

  1. Do those who feel discriminated against see me as an ally?

  2. Do students, families, and community members know they can come to me with any concerns they have about racism, anti-Semitism, or any social-justice issue they are facing? What evidence do they have they can trust me?

  3. How well do I know my students and their communities? Do I know them well enough to be their advocate? If not, what do I need to learn?

  4. Who am I accountable to? Whom should I work with to make sure the impact (not the intent) of my practice an educator results in justice and not harm?

Judaism, for me, is at its best when focused on the pursuit of "tzedek" (justice), when it teaches believers never to turn away from injustice. And while we may disagree on what justice is, the form it takes, and for whom it manifests, I believe it is at the core of our work in this life to pursue it for everyone. In fact, all the questions outlined above can be used to make our classrooms and schools better places for every student. As Jews, we are not alone in this pursuit — all of our friends and neighbors can play a role.

What needs to happen in your classroom and your school to make sure we cancel the rise of hate-based and anti-Semitic incidents in schools in 2019?

To learn more, these are some of the organizations you can study and support:

We first met Rebekah when working to help plan the first annual All Y’all Social Justice Collective conference. Rebekah did the lion’s share of the work, along with other trusted colleagues, because she believes in the intellectual concept of a Better South and she’s working to shape it. What we learned along the way is, she’s not alone. Teachers all over the South are fighting tooth and nail for an anti-racist curriculum and enacting anti-racist pedagogies. We also learned that the stories of such teachers too often go untold.

Their stories, y’all, should be shouted and sung to the high heavens.

Teachers, send us your stories, your classroom routines, your lesson plans, whatever you have that makes you want to shout to the rooftops as you teach for an anti-racist Better South.