The Desensitization of Antisemitism and the Holocaust at Loomis Chaffee and Beyond

On January 12, a survey published by the Anti-Defamation League revealed that over the past three years, the percentage of Americans who believe in at least one antisemitic trope has increased from 61 to 85 percent. 

As much as our community likes to think of Loomis Chaffee as our own isolated Island, Jewish community members continue to face antisemitic comments, especially when it is normalized and perpetuated by celebrities and leaders in positions of power. Loomis Chaffee must acknowledge antisemitic events around the world and expand its Holocaust education to resensitize the community, ensure Jewish inclusion, and combat ignorant acts of hate. 

In the fall of 2022, Ye, an American singer and rapper formerly known as Kanye West, made anti-Jewish comments. He posted on Twitter, “I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” referring to DEFCON 3, which requires the military to prepare operations within fifteen minutes. Ye sparked a wave of antisemites to join in on these tropes. Some even held banners over the Los Angeles freeway saying, “Kanye is right” while raising their arms in a Nazi salute. 

Numerous Loomis students listen to Ye’s music. However, our school’s administration did not acknowledge the overwhelming rise of antisemitism ignited by Ye that affected so many of our community members. Head of School Dr. Sheila Culbert has addressed hate against the Asian American Pacific Islander and Black communities in her weekly emails, but she did not mention the antisemitic comments made by Ye and the events that followed. Although it is impossible to condemn hate everywhere it occurs, many Jewish community members would have appreciated a show of solidarity from our school’s leaders.

“When Dr. Culbert failed to acknowledge Ye’s antisemitic rages, I was disappointed,” Lauren Sonnenfeld ’24, Jewish Student Union Co-President, said.

However, the Jewish Student Union (JSU) quickly reached out to its members, expressing disapproval for these acts of hate and providing support in the wake of these antisemitic occurrences. 

“My immediate reaction to everything that was going on was checking in with our specific group [JSU] to make sure that everyone was okay and everybody felt supported. I know that in the past we have made all-school declarations against certain things, and I think that has a role … It becomes incredibly difficult when there’s so much going on and our world is a little bit full of hate right now,” Ms. Hannah Insuik, Faculty Advisor of the JSU, said.

Nevertheless, a student’s Jewish identity is not always identifiable, and a response from either the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) or Dr. Culbert would have guaranteed that all Jewish community members were made aware of the same resources as members of the JSU.

In 2019, a swastika was found on the whiteboard of a classroom. To better track and investigate the timing of any hateful symbology or words drawn on school property, the DEI office in conjunction with Physical Plant now conducts audits around the entire campus. While this is a good measure allowing the school to address hate-related vandalism, antisemitic acts are not always visible. 

Before and after Ye’s antisemitic rages, jokes surrounding the Holocaust and Jewish people have been made on our campus. Though after Ye made antisemitic comments, there was an increase in insensitive responses. Good music does not excuse antisemitism. 

While students making antisemitic comments may defend themselves as making a silly remark, it leaves Jewish students in a vulnerable position, questioning if they should even address it with administration. Since Judaism is an ethno-religion, Jewish students struggle when it comes to seeking out support. Jewish students may witness or hear antisemitic comments without the person making the comment even knowing they are Jewish. Without being the target of the comment, Jewish students question if they should go to the DEI office, the dean’s office, or a resource more tailored to religion. In addition to Ms. Hannah Insuik, the Faculty Advisor of the JSU, students can reach out to Mr. Ryan Heckman, our school’s new Religious Life Coordinator, via email or through the DEI office.

As written in our school policies, free speech on campus is not absolute. Loomis does not condone any discriminatory language. Our campus thrives on our diverse population, but we have to recognize that we all come from different walks of life and have varying levels of knowledge surrounding different cultures. While students making antisemitic comments typically have some idea that what they are saying is wrong, comments continue to be made due to a lack of empathy and education and overall normalization in the media and society.

“A lot of the antisemitism has been coming from ignorance, not really a mean spirit, but just a lack of education because there’s so many people coming from different backgrounds and places where the Holocaust isn’t spoken about,” Sonnenfeld said.

In past years, the required summer reading for incoming freshmen had been The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The novel, told from the perspective of Death, relates the life of Liesel Meminger and her foster parents in Nazi Germany. The text necessitated discussion of the Holocaust and served as a baseline level of Holocaust awareness for all freshmen. 

This year, however, freshmen read a graphic novel rendition of The Odyssey for their summer reading. Due to the length of The Book Thief, the English department decided not to move the text into the school year curriculum. Without any freshman year book discussing Jewish identity, the Holocaust, or antisemitism, freshmen without prior knowledge will remain ignorant to these issues.

The Department of History, Philosophy, & Religious Studies currently offers three sections of Germany and the Holocaust for upperclassmen. The course allows students to take a deep dive into the context and history that caused such a horrific genocide. Two years ago, sophomore eligibility to take the class was removed for a combination of factors. For one, teachers had concerns about history seminars that were open to both students who have and who have not taken junior history. Another reason was due to enrollment patterns that work to balance course offerings with what students want to take and when. 

Since the course is limited to upperclassmen, it is important to incorporate units on World War II and the Holocaust into world and United States history curricula as these courses are required for freshmen and juniors. With a heavy emphasis on social history, however, these history classes hardly teach World War II, nevermind the Holocaust. Expanding Holocaust education beyond a designated term course would enhance our understanding of history as a whole on a moral, psychological, and political level.

Because including this history might require significant restructuring of the curriculum, an alternative solution that is currently in discussion is a unit on the Holocaust and antisemitism in the Norton Center’s Seminars in the Best Self and Common Good as it aligns with aligns with the seminars’ values of community, inclusion, and engaged citizenship. The seminars currently tie antisemitism into classes on microaggressions and identity, but understanding the Holocaust and the history of antisemitism is crucial to understanding modern-day forms of antisemitism. All freshman and sophomores participate in these seminars; therefore, a unit on this topic would ensure proper exposure and encourage sensitivity. 

Before COVID-19, Loomis required underclassmen to fulfill conversation credits as part of their participation in their Norton Center seminars. This ensured that students would attend events exposing them to new ideas surrounding race, ethnicity, religion, and political ideology. Mandated engagement ensured successful outreach for critical conversations. Reimplementing this requirement would result in more awareness surrounding not only antisemitsim but all cultures.

Faculty and students are currently working with the Rubenstein Family Holocaust Education Fund to host a film night in the spring. In future years, the committee looks to use this fund to bring in speakers for an all-school convocation. In addition to the Rubenstein fund, the Student Council is working to implement more Holocaust education. Other ideas could include bringing in speakers to talk about antisemitism through the Hubbard Speaker Series and providing opportunities for students to visit Holocaust memorial sites.

In 2017, Loomis brought in two different speakers: Holocaust survivor Ruth “Tutti” Lichtenstern Fishman and Holocaust Survivor Rabbi Philip Lazowski. Last year, Mark Oppenheimer ’92, author of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, spoke through the Norton Center. Because there are so few Holocaust survivors left, listening to their stories is so important. Listening to stories of modern-day antisemitism is also crucial to our understanding of the world.

Though curriculum changes in individual departments were never meant to maliciously remove education on the Holocaust and antisemitism, the added components across departments create gaps in knowledge on such a relevant issue. By addressing antisemitism across campus and implementing more widespread education on Holocaust remembrance and modern-day antisemitism, we can invoke empathy in our community, make campus a more inviting space for Jewish students, and keep precious histories alive.