As a freshman at Walt Whitman High School, Rachel Barold is well aware of the recent antisemitic events in Montgomery County—and it’s not just the graffiti painted on Whitman’s entrance sign in December, or antisemitic emails sent to the school’s staff a day later.
Barold, 15, is president of Jews4Change, an organization at Whitman that has helped lead responses to the incidents at the school. She’s said in recent months that students at Whitman have bullied her because of her Judaism. For instance, they’ve made clear that they enjoy Ye —the famous rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who has made multiple antisemitic remarks in recent months—and his music.
And the issue isn’t just in high school, she said—it starts as early as third grade.
“There’s elementary school teachers DMing our Instagram account on the Jews4Change official account, telling us … stories about how students are putting swastikas on elementary school assignments,” Barold said in an interview. “And searching up things about the Holocaust not existing on their school-issued Chromebooks. So, it’s really scary.”
Barold was one of about 200 people in attendance at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington in North Bethesda for a panel highlighting antisemitism and a recent report by the American Jewish Committee that contains data on the issue.
Alan Ronkin, regional director of the committee, moderated a discussion that featured four prominent local Jewish people:
- Evan Glass, Montgomery County Council president
- Ezra Meyer, a senior at George Washington University (and Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School graduate)
- Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post columnist
- Lt. Ari Elkin of the Montgomery County Department of Police’s 2nd District, located in Bethesda
The panel answered questions from Ronkin as well as written questions from the audience.
The first audience question asked whether police had any leads on recent incidents in the county, including vandalism on the Bethesda trolley trail.
Elkin admitted that perpetrators in these incidents are not easy to catch. He did not want to give away details of any potential police investigation, but asked residents to speak up when they see something.
He said it’s important for residents to report tips to police, and let them decide whether information is useful. Most of all, those committing vandalism will not triumph over the community, he said.
“Whoever is doing this is not winning … they are actually bringing us together,” Elkin said. “All they have is a keyboard or a can of spray paint. They are not winning.”
Another attendee, a student, asked how residents can address the idea that antisemitism is not treated as seriously as other forms of hate—for instance, some may see Jewish people as just white, and not the targets of antisemitism.
Rubin said it’s important to educate people as much as possible, in many different ways—via the Holocaust museum, documentary series like director/producer Ken Burns’ recent one about the Holocaust, and other avenues. Meyer said it’s important, especially for college students like himself, to be active in educating the public.
“It’s difficult, it takes organizing, it takes action and initiative,” Meyer said. “I’ve been at this effort for four years, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’ve made any progress. But you have to be persistent.”
Nelson Moskowitz, 76, of Kemp Mill, knows that challenge. He was born in a refugee camp in Italy, after his parents struggled through the Holocaust. Then, growing up in Cleveland, Moskowitz was beaten up and chased by others who hated Jews.
Moskowitz understands antisemitism won’t vanish before he dies. But education—for families and teachers alike—is “fundamental,” he said.
Rubin and Glass agreed that education is key—from teaching people that the term “Jew down” a price is an insult, to flagging harmful social media posts on any platform.
Rubin said it’s important to not necessarily assume that news organizations are acting in bad faith when they print or air antisemitic ideas. But it’s also important for people to stand up and condemn such language when it appears intentional, she said.
“News organizations have a First Amendment right, but you have a First Amendment right to speak up,” Rubin said.
Taffy Sassoon, 78, of Rockville, said the number of attendees at Thursday’s panel shows that people are concerned about antisemitism. She’s studied a lot of Jewish history and lived in Israel for 39 years, until about 18 months ago.
She said antisemitism is never going to go away, but Jewish people and others should continue to combat it, along with all other forms of hate. And it’s important to realize that it is a form of hate—even in a place like Montgomery County, where Jewish people are viewed as prosperous and successful.
Jewish people often look white, but do not identify as white, including Sassoon. “This does not mean that antisemitism is not a real and present danger to society, because it’s a cancer,” Sassoon said.
Barold, the student at Walt Whitman, believes that Holocaust education in middle and elementary schools could go a long way in combatting antisemitism. Current curriculums include considerable teaching about the Civil War and immigration, but not Jewish history, she said.
Moderator Ronkin asked those in attendance to stay persistent in their efforts against antisemistim—much like Barold has done during her freshman year of high school.
“Today is really a call to action,” Ronkin said toward the end of Thursday’s panel. “It’s a call to energy; it’s a call to rise up.”