About This Lesson
This is the first lesson in a unit designed to help teachers have conversations with their students about contemporary antisemitism in a safe, sensitive and constructive way. Use these lessons to help your students reflect on antisemitism – how it manifests in contemporary society and its impact – and consider what needs to be done to challenge it.
This lesson is a means of introducing students to antisemitism, its impact, and some key antisemitic lies and myths in a brave and supportive learning environment (the second lesson in the unit provides space to explore antisemitic tropes in further depth). This lesson frames the focus of the unit. The activities help students to understand that antisemitism is rooted in malicious rumours, lies and myths that were first spread millennia ago, subsequently becoming entrenched as tropes; to reflect on the human cost of antisemitism and how it impacts those who experience it; and to start thinking about the process of standing up against antisemitism.
It is important to note that young people are particularly at risk of being exposed to antisemitic content. Social media platforms have created spaces in which all antisemitism, regardless of the motivating force behind it, has been allowed to flourish: memes and posts containing antisemitic ideas have been spread across platforms, sometimes by people who are naive to their antisemitic content.
Educating young people about antisemitic tropes, their history and how they appear in the present day can challenge antisemitism both by helping young people understand the destructive and painful past and present of antisemitic myths, making them more likely to stand up against such prejudice, and by preventing them from sharing antisemitic content unsuspectingly.
- What is antisemitism, and how is it visible in the world today?
- What are some commonly believed antisemitic lies and myths?
- What is the impact of antisemitism?
- Students will be able to define antisemitism.
- Students will identify some of the commonly believed lies and myths of contemporary antisemitism.
The history of hatred and prejudice towards Jews extends back in time more than two millennia, when malicious lies and rumours were first circulated about Jews. Early on, the discrimination of Jews was linked to their religious beliefs, and thus known as anti-Judaism; however, it later became linked to an idea that Jews were biologically different. In Spain in the mid 1400s, Purity of Blood laws were developed ‘to differentiate between “Old Christians” of Catholic heritage, and conversos, the newer Christian converts of known or suspected Jewish or Muslim heritage’. 1 By focusing on ‘blood’, the laws suggested there was an innate, biological and hateful difference between conversos and ‘Old Christians’. Those who were considered to have ‘impure’ blood due to their Jewish or Muslim heritage were subsequently prevented by law from marrying ‘Old Christians’, discriminated against and prohibited from taking on certain positions in public life. These Purity of Blood laws were later central to the Spanish Inquisition and were used to justify the persecution, torture and expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. The notion that Jews were biologically different was then reinforced by the emergence of the concept of race during the Enlightenment: Jews were depicted as a separate ‘semitic’ race.
‘Race science’, which advanced the idea that humankind is divided into separate and unequal races, was originally invented in the 1700s by scientists in Europe and the Americas to justify slavery and other imperialistic practices: if it could be scientifically proven that white people were biologically superior to those who they colonised and enslaved, then their actions would not contradict the Enlightenment ideals of human freedom and equality. The trend for ‘race science’ continued on into the late 1800s with many white European and American scientists continuing to divide humankind into smaller and smaller ‘races’. One of these was the ‘Semitic race’, which they used to categorise Jews and which led to the emergence of antisemitism: antisemites used ‘race science’ to justify discrimination against Jews. Antisemitism is, therefore, a form of racism.
Although ‘race science’ was widely denounced after the Second World War and the mass murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany and its allies, the ideas it propagated of racial difference have not gone away. Antisemitism still exists, as does anti-Judaism. At their root, both antisemitism and anti-Judaism rely on the idea that certain physical, intellectual and moral differences exist between Jews and other groups, and that these differences are biological, permanent, and render Jews odious.
Since 2009, the number of antisemitic incidents recorded in the UK has, on the whole, been increasing. 2 The Community Security Trust (CST), a UK charity that advises and represents the Jewish community on matters of antisemitism, terrorism, policing and security, has documented this rise and highlighted how the number of incidents has been historically high in recent years. 3
This rise in antisemitism is due to a range of factors: far-right theories of white supremacy, which build on ideas initially propagated by ‘race science’, have gained more momentum in recent years, aided by nationalistic sentiment; 4 the political sphere – the rise in populism, antisemitism in the Labour Party, and the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) in 2016 – has created a space in which antisemitic ideas have gained prominence; conspiracy theories scapegoating Jews to suggest they are behind – and the beneficiaries of – global events such COVID-19, 9/11 and, paradoxically, the Holocaust have, with the help of social media, reached large audiences; 5 and spikes in conflict between Israel-Palestine have been exploited by those with antisemitic prejudices and used as an opportunity to attack Jews everywhere. 6 These manifestations, along with others, deploy old antisemitic tropes, adapting them to retain relevance in contemporary society.
As Joe Mulhall notes:
Across the millennia the core prejudice and hatred has remained constant, but the form and lexicon of antisemitism has often changed and updated to reach new audiences in each new century and for each new generation. 7
Antisemitism is a threat to human rights: it can make Jewish individuals and communities fearful of displaying their Jewish identity in case they are attacked, and, like all expressions of hate, it can allow intolerance to flourish (hate begets hate).
As Human Rights First notes:
Antisemitic violence harms not only its direct victims but entire Jewish communities, preventing them from being able to exercise their fundamental rights. And the potential damage is even greater: Left unchecked, antisemitism leads to the persecution of other minorities, and to an overall increase in repression and intolerance. An increase in antisemitism is a harbinger of societal breakdown. 8
The persistence of, and rise in, antisemitism in the UK and around the world should be of concern to us all.
- 1 Meghan Berry, ‘Limpieza de Sangre: Legal Applications of the Spanish Doctrine of “Blood Purity”’, Library of Congress, 10 September 2021 (accessed 14 October 2021).
- 2 Although the number of incidents in 2010, 2011 and 2012 was lower than in 2009, the totals of each of these years was higher than in 2008. The dip in 2013 seems to be an anomaly: from 2014, the incidents rose considerably until the dip in 2020. It is worth noting that the amount of antisemitic incidents the CST recorded in the UK in 2020, though slightly lower than in 2019, was still the third highest total ever recorded (2019 remains the highest annual total ever recorded by the CST). Antisemitic Incidents: Report 2020 , Community Security Trust, 13 (accessed 14 October 2021).
- 3 Ibid.
- 4 Cristina Ariza, ‘White nationalists are recruiting the younger generation in the UK’, Open Democracy, 3 December 2020 (accessed 22 November 2021).
- 5Joe Mulhall, Antisemitism in the Digital Age: Online Antisemitic Hate, Holocaust Denial, Conspiracy Ideologies and Terrorism in Europe , Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Expo Foundation and HOPE not hate, October 2021 (accessed 22 November 2021).
- 6Benjamin Ward, ‘Europe’s Worrying Surge of Antisemitism’, Human Rights Watch, 17 May 2021 (accessed 30 September 2021).
- 7Mulhall, Antisemitism in the Digital Age , 10.
- 8‘Breaking the Cycle of Violence’, Human Rights First, 7 January 2016, 1 (accessed 23 November 2021).
This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:
- 5 activities
- 1 reading
- 1 classroom-ready PowerPoint
- 3 extension activities
Preparing to Teach
A Note to Teachers
Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.
We recommend that you revisit your classroom contract before teaching this lesson. If you do not have a class contract, you can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.
A note on the terms anti-Judaism and antisemitism:
- The term anti-Judaism refers both to the religious prejudice against Jews before the historical emergence of the concept of race, and to the continued existence of negative ideas about Jews and what it means to be Jewish.
- The word Semitic does not actually refer to a group of people. It is not a ‘race’ but rather a linguistic term that refers to a group of languages traditionally spoken in the Middle East and parts of Africa, including Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia, as well as Hebrew and Arabic.
Antisemitism is hatred of, or hostility towards, Jews and is also a form of racism.
- Trope – A commonly shared idea, phrase or story.
- Dog-whistling – Using code words to express racist and/or hateful feelings and content to avoid being called out on what you are saying.
Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.
Please note, we have opted not to use a formal definition of antisemitism, such as those outlined in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, the Nexus Document or the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism as formal definitions, though helpful, can be limiting. If you do choose to share any of these definitions with students, consider sharing more than one of them and inviting students to consider the similarities and differences. It is also important to ensure that students understand that these definitions are just guidelines and, as such, may not capture the realities of certain situations. Please be attentive to the needs of your students and consider how different definitions might impact their feelings of safety.
Several antisemitic tropes have their origins in the discriminatory behaviour of the early Christian church and its treatment of Jews: Jews were blamed for social ills, banned from serving in most professions and accused of killing Jesus (and later Christian children). When teaching the reality of this difficult history, it is important students understand that interfaith dialogue and work has helped to heal generations of religious conflict between Jews and Christians. In 1965, for example, the Catholic Church released a declaration called the ‘Nostra Aetate’, which stated that the wider Jewish community and Jews today could not be held responsible for the death of Jesus.
The Church of England has also made attempts at religious reconciliation. To learn more about this work, see Tony Kushner’s article ‘The Church of England is apologising for medieval antisemitism – why now?’ 1 and the book God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian–Jewish Relations published by the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England.
- 1Tony Kushner, ‘The Church of England is apologising for medieval antisemitism – why now?’, The Conversation, 16 July 2021 (accessed 22 September 2022).
Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.
Before you begin engaging with the content of the lesson, we recommend that you create a classroom contract or revisit a previously created one. You can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.
Then, explain to students that you will be exploring antisemitism (hostility to, prejudice towards, or discrimination against Jews), and that you will be beginning this exploration with some reflections on rumours, lies and myths. This is because antisemitism is rooted in malicious lies that were first spread about Jews and Judaism millennia ago.
Ask students to record their observations about rumours, lies, and myths from their own experiences by responding to some or all of the following questions in their journals:
- How do rumours get started?
- Why might lies and myths about people persist even after they have been proven wrong?
- Have you, or anyone you know, ever been impacted by a rumour? What happened?
- Have you ever helped to spread a rumour that you doubted or knew wasn’t true? Why?
Students should be allowed to keep their own stories of spreading rumours private. However, you can ask for volunteers to share their more general observations about why rumours and lies can be so persistent; they can share these thoughts without having to share details of the particular incident.
Next, inform students that they will be exploring what antisemitism is and how it manifests itself in society. Tell them that the most basic definition of antisemitism is ‘hatred of or hostility towards Jews’, but it is also a form of racism.
Then, distribute the handout Introduction to Antisemitism, its Past and its Present and either read it to the class, asking students to follow the text, or invite students to read using one of the Read Aloud strategies.
Check to see if students have any questions about what they have read before sharing the following definitions with them:
- Anti-Judaism – Religious prejudice against Jews before the historical emergence of the concept of race, and the continued existence of negative ideas about Jews and what it means to be Jewish.
- Antisemitism – Hostility to, prejudice towards, or discrimination against Jews; it is also a form of racism.
- Trope – A commonly shared idea, phrase or story.
- Conspiracy theory – A theory that explains an event by suggesting it is the result of the actions of a small, powerful group.
Dog-whistling – Using code words to express racist and/or hateful feelings and content to avoid being called out on what you are saying.
Next, inform students that they will be thinking about the impact that antisemitism has on those who experience it.
Explain that, in recent years, the number of antisemitic incidents recorded in the UK has been historically high. There have been public attacks, in which people have been physically assaulted or verbally abused for being Jewish; 1 property, such as synagogues 2 and Jewish graveyards 3 have been vandalised; antisemitic graffiti has appeared in public places, depicting, for example, Nazi swastikas and/or references to Hitler being ‘right’; 4 and antisemitic abuse has been sent on social media platforms.
Then, share some or all of the following Jewish experiences and perceptions of antisemitism from a survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in the EU, which was organised by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
- ‘I walk down a main street every [Sabbath/Saturday]. I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t get a hoot or middle fingers. It’s very intimidating.’ 5
(Man, 30–34 years old, UK)
- ‘You helpfully asked about “hiding” Jewish identity which is something I definitely do, but not only for personal safety, I do it to avoid discrimination or inappropriate scrutiny at work, and when I meet new people, so that I am not unduly “judged” in any prejudicial way before they get to know me.’ 6
(Woman, 60–69 years old, UK)
- ‘None of my friends where I live or who I work with know that I’m a Jew. Our children don’t know about my Jewish background, because I am terrified that they would get comments on that in school. I no longer visit the synagogue, because it’s not worth it if we’d be targeted for something. The best thing was when I got married, because now my last name is “Svensson”.’ 7
(Woman, 40–44 years old, Sweden)
- ‘Two years ago I thought maybe at some stage I might need to emigrate. I have taken no steps to do this, but before I would not even have imagined leaving the UK.’ 8
(Man, 50–54 years old, UK)
Then, share the following questions for students to respond to in their journals before leading a short class discussion.
- What impact does antisemitism have on Jewish people? Consider how it impacts their feelings, behaviour, experiences, etc.
- How do you think it makes people feel if they are targeted or treated differently on account of one aspect of their identity? Explain your answer.
- How do you think acts of hate, such as targeted verbal abuse, graffiti or trolling, impact communities?
- How could they make it more likely that people will commit violent acts?
- What factors contribute to a climate in which perpetrators of hateful acts feel emboldened?
- 1 Antisemitic Incidents: Report January-June 2021 , Community Security Trust, 12–16 (accessed 18 October 2021).
- 3‘“Sickening” anti-Semitic attack on Manchester cemetery’, BBC News, 24 June 2014 (accessed 18 October 2021).
- 4 Antisemitic Incidents: Report 2020, Community Security Trust , 46–7 (accessed 18 October 2021).
- 5 Experiences and perceptions of antisemitism: Second survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in the EU, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights , 2018, 48 (accessed 22 September 2022).
- 6Ibid., 62.
- 7Ibid., 37.
- 8Ibid., 39.
Inform students that they will now learn about some of the antisemitic tropes that foster antisemitic sentiment in society by doing the Gallery Walk contained within the lesson PowerPoint Introducing Antisemitism and Antisemitic Tropes.
Explain to them that, while many tropes that exist in the world today are about harmless ideas, antisemitic tropes are quite dangerous because they are rooted in pernicious lies that were created with the aim of harming Jews. Over centuries, many of these lies persisted, having been spread intentionally to scapegoat and ‘other’ Jews. Their broad circulation has meant that these antisemitic tropes have seeped into the consciousness and beliefs of many who do not realise they are antisemitic. These tropes are particularly harmful as not only do they lead to stereotyping and acts of antisemitic violence, they also foster distorted world views and encourage conspiratorial thinking.
Ask students to move around the room, read the content on the Gallery Walk and for each page note down their responses to these questions:
- What is the antisemitic trope?
- What do you find surprising or troubling about the content you have read?
After students have had sufficient time to read the content and answer the questions for each trope, ask them to return to their seats and debrief the Gallery Walk as a class by discussing the following questions:
- What did you find particularly surprising or troubling in the content shared?
- What has the content of the Gallery Walk taught you about antisemitic tropes and their roots?
- What questions do you have?
You may wish to collect students’ questions and place them somewhere so that you can refer to them over the course of the unit.
Finally, invite students to reflect on the following prompts in a Think, Pair, Share:
- The American journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett once stated that ‘the people must know before they can act’.
- What do you think her statement means?
- Do you agree or disagree with the statement? Explain your answer.
- What does her statement suggest about the process of standing up against discrimination?
- How is it relevant to the study of antisemitism and antisemitic tropes?
- Why might we need to know about antisemitic tropes to be able to stand up against antisemitism?
Give students the handout Overview of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism to help them understand the long history of hatred and discrimination against Jews, and learn about how anti-Judaism, a religious prejudice, was transformed in the nineteenth century into antisemitism, a form of racism.
Once students have worked their way through the handout independently or in pairs, debrief the handout with students by asking them to share their answers to the questions. Take this opportunity to correct any misunderstandings regarding the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism.
To help students reflect on othering and how humans respond to difference, share James Berry’s poem What Do We Do With a Variation?. Read it out loud as a class before asking students to discuss the accompanying questions in pairs or small groups. Then, lead a short class discussion to debrief the activity and encourage students to make connections between what they have learnt in the lesson and the content of the poem.
For further assistance on helping students understand what antisemitism is, how it shows up in contemporary settings, why it persists, and how it impacts individuals and communities, please see our Explainer: Antisemitism and Its Impacts. Please note, this Explainer has a US focus.
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Introducing Antisemitism and Antisemitic Tropes
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