After a wave of antisemitism hit the United States following the recent tensions between Israel and Hamas, middle school students in grades 6-8 at Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead engaged in a Zoom discussion about the impact of social media on the spread of misinformation about Israel and the alarming rise in antisemitism.
The June 3 seminar was led by Rachel Fish, executive director of the Foundation to Combat anti-Semitism founded by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Brett Lubarsky, director of the Jewish Teen Initiative at Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Fish opened the conversation by likening the situation to an onion in which one needs to peel back many layers to fully grasp its complexity. In a place with religious significance to many, two differing narratives about history, and strong claims to land itself by both peoples, it’s no wonder that Israel is often portrayed in a negative light in the news and on social media. Fish gave the students an extensive background on how the state of Israel came to be, and the origins of the conflict with Palestinians.
Students were encouraged to share what they had seen or heard on social media or in the news. One student spoke about his family in Israel and was disturbed by the recent protests in Israel and in the U.S. Another student saw that in a recent social media post, Israel was being referred to as an apartheid state. A third student shared that when she sees antisemitic posts online, she immediately reports them.
Fish explained the history of apartheid and colonialism and provided insight into why these terms do not describe the history and current tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Lubarsky also explained that the students must approach antisemitism through the lens of history and current events, and that this is just one step of creating resources in order for teens to be able to participate in a collective community conversation.
Knowing that social media preys on emotional and politically charged stories, Fish and Lubarsky gave the students frameworks and tools to help them respond to what they see and hear online. Additionally, students were encouraged to talk with parents and teachers for guidance.
Fish discussed the concept of performative allyship – the process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability – and shared that most people come with good intentions but just limited background knowledge. She taught the students to ask questions like “Who is writing this?” “What facts do they use or not use?” and “What conclusion are they trying to make?” With these concepts in mind, students can understand the intention of the writer and thus decide which approach is best.
The conversation concluded with time for the students to process what they had learned. Lubarsky challenged the students to think about how they can work together with others when they disagree, find common ground, and consider how they approach their discussions with others. They were encouraged to reach back out with follow-up questions, especially as students will likely continue to be faced with antisemitism online and in the news.
Jewish Teen Initiative at Combined Jewish Philanthropies has been working with its Peer Leadership Fellows and community organizations to create spaces and opportunities for connection and conversation around combating antisemitism and other hot topics.
Resources and opportunities can be found at jewishbostonteens.com.