Does Education Protect Against Antisemitism?

Rabbi Paul Plotkin
5 min readMay 29, 2023

A New York Times article today, Memorial Day, began with the following:

“In a dimly lit conference room on an upper floor of a Chicago mid-rise, an intricately detailed snapshot of American peril is being taken, minute by unsettling minute….. This is the headquarters of the Secure Community Network, the closest thing to an official security agency for American Jewish institutions… created by the Jewish Federations of North America after 9/11. It has grown exponentially over the past five years, from a small office with a staff of five to a national organization with 75 employees stationed around the country.”

The Secure Community Network monitors hate groups and antisemites all over the United States and sometimes informs the police of threats that have led to arrests. They are made up of analysts who have backgrounds in the military, private intelligence and social media companies. They spend their days in the sewers of the internet monitoring people who want to harm or kill Jews.

93 Jewish Federations have full-time security directors, and many synagogues now practice active shooting drills and hire armed guards at all synagogue events.

My son’s Orthodox synagogue has a trained group of volunteers who on Shabbat have Rabbinic permission to wear an earpiece and communications device (and God only knows what else), as they patrol the building.

He lives in a wonderful Jewish neighborhood, filled with synagogues of all denominations that get along, but over the years the neighborhood has seen attempted bombings and attacks on Jews. It is increasingly less safe to be a Jew in America.

I began with the article above because for days now I have been thinking about antisemitism and our response to it.

The president released the U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. There is a debate in the Jewish world about the document because he allowed for more than one definition of antisemitism, but that is for another day.

It is a long comprehensive report covering some 90 pages. It begins with pillar 1, which is to, “increase awareness and understanding of anti-Semitism including its threat to America and broaden appreciation of Jewish American heritage”.

In that pillar, the strategic goal is to increase school-based education about antisemitism, including the Holocaust and Jewish American heritage. It goes on to call for many resources to increase the educational awareness of our youth.

It all sounds good, but I have my doubts about its efficacy.

My concern and discomfort began when the sentence came down of 18 years in jail for the founder and head of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes. He had been found guilty of seditious conspiracy to disrupt the electoral count and many other felonies.

In the reporting of the sentence, I heard one descriptive statement that started my ruminations about the problem. Stewart Rhodes is a graduate of Yale Law School!

If he was a lawyer that would be bad enough, but a graduate of Yale law, was the head of an extreme right-wing organization filled with antisemites and racists and Christian Nationalists! A Yale Law grad who claims his only mistake in hindsight was to not tell his followers to bring arms to the capitol on Jan 6th. And this is why I have been so disturbed by the two events of last week. Education will not protect us from Antisemitism.

It is no more effective than reading about heart attacks will protect anyone from getting one. Yes, knowledge will cause some people to exercise more or change their diet, but it is estimated that 960,000 people experience heart failure every year. According to the CDC in the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds. Educating people about a problem that goes against their nature is not very effective.

If education was the remedy for ending racism and antisemitism and prejudice, how do you explain Senator Josh Hawley, whose raised hand in solidarity with the Jan 6 rioters once held a BA from Stanford and a law degree from Yale?

If education could teach compassion and understanding, how do you explain that Senator Ted Cruz has a law degree from Harvard Law School.

If education could instill empathy and tolerance and a desire to respect the “other” even if we disagree with them, how do you explain Governor DeSantis having a BA from Yale and a law degree from Harvard?

Hitler may not have been the most intelligent or highly educated person in the Germany of the third Reich, but he governed over one of the most cultured and educated populations in Europe. The great scientists that helped him make the V-2 rockets and almost gave him a nuclear weapon, or the great college professors and public intellectuals, or the jurors that ran his judicial system were highly educated but that did not stop them from helping advance the final solution.

Like a heart attack, antisemitism exists in nature. It lives in the mind and the bodies in a latent state waiting for the opportune time to emerge and attack. You can’t educate against it, though I have no objection to trying if only to limit its onslaught, as long as there are other responses in place.

President Biden’s plan against antisemitism does have other strategies and programs to fight antisemitism and more importantly to prevent antisemites from putting their hate into actions that threaten our existence. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that we are safe, or that we will ever eradicate it. If we were poor immigrants we would be hated as a drain on society, and if we are wealthy and successful it is because we are exploitative and a part of a secret cabal trying to take America away from its intended leaders, white Christian Americans.

We will never intellectually win that battle and we will never educate those who were used to being on top into seeing that success is not a zero-sum game.

In short, I am not sure that education will ever be the antidote to antisemitism, nor do I think there is a cure. What we need are preventatives; self-defense, a strong and non-corrupt judiciary, and a strong Israel to run to, may be our best hopes of survival.

If a house painter in Germany could lead the 3rd Reich and almost capture the world, what do you think a couple of Yale Law school graduates could do to America? Welcome to my nightmare.

Thanks to all who came to the very successful book launch on April 23. I have been invited to participate in the Whistler Writer’s Festival in the fall to share my book , Wisdom Grows In My Garden. You can order it on Amazon

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Rabbi Paul Plotkin

I am a retired Conservative Rabbi. I was a pulpit Rabbi for 40 years. I supervise a chain of kosher Delis called Ben's .