Education is the antidote to hate

Dan Ceaser is Head of School of Hershorin Schiff Community Day School.
Dan Ceaser is Head of School of Hershorin Schiff Community Day School.

By now most of us have seen and read about the fallout from the recent antisemitic rant by Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West.

This issue is larger than the increasingly overt use of antisemitic slander by public figures – it’s also about the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and the use of threats among their followers. We know these statements of hate are finding a receptive audience: just days ago a message declaring  “Kanye is right about the Jews” was projected on an electronic video board at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville and displayed elsewhere across that city.

And in recent years we have seen an increase in antisemitic acts throughout our own community.

This year residents of several Sarasota neighborhoods were recipients of hateful flyers blaming Jews for everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the war between Russia and Ukraine. Last month swastikas and racist hate speech were spray-painted on a pedestrian footbridge where I often walk my dog in my neighborhood in south Sarasota.

Hundreds of community members attended a February unity gathering in downtown Sarasota to denounce anti-Semitic acts committed against Jewish Sarasota residents.
Hundreds of community members attended a February unity gathering in downtown Sarasota to denounce anti-Semitic acts committed against Jewish Sarasota residents.

Unfortunately, this local uptick in hate is part of a national trend. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to ADL.” The 2021 numbers were up 34% from 2020.

So what are we to do? Nelson Mandela famously said, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Education is the antidote not only to antisemitism but also to all forms of prejudice and hatred. Purposely and deliberately introducing children to those who look, talk, think and pray differently while facilitating respectful discourse naturally results in finding common ground.

Fear gives way to curiosity, which leads to understanding and ultimately kinship. When people learn, work, eat, play and/or pray together, it becomes much easier to demystify nefarious stereotypes that are all too commonly used to manipulate, divide and demonize “others.”

The joyful celebration of religion is an experience that can be universally shared, understood and appreciated, regardless of what form one prays to.

At Community Day School, our unique and pluralistic Jewish Day School in Sarasota, students of all faiths –guided by a diverse faculty that includes a school rabbi who formerly served as an interfaith clergy leader and chaplain in the Air Force Academy – learn that we have far more in common than that which divides us.

Our students experience Jewish traditions and practices that are joyful and enriching. These traditions and practices are based on values that include kindness ("chesed"), community ("kehillah"), justice ("tzedek") and a desire to improve our world ("tikkun olam"). As a community rabbi insightfully shared with me, “These are not Jewish values, but universal values reinforced through a Jewish perspective.”

Regardless of one’s form of observance or level of affiliation, religious practices are essentially multiple languages used to describe similar belief systems, values, hopes and aspirations. In a civilized society, shouldn’t we celebrate all who live their lives guided by values that espouse goodness?

Whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, Quaker or any religion, can we all agree that dedication to core values such as integrity and trustworthiness makes our community stronger and our country better?

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to bring together a diverse community of children in Sarasota and our surrounding communities. Still, we recognize that this isn’t always feasible in every town nationwide. With Jews making up just about 2.4% of the U.S. population, many communities would simply not be able to bring together Jews and non-Jews to experience each other’s traditions – even if they were willing to do so.

Given our relatively small numbers and the frightening and relentless persecution of Jews throughout history, education is – once again – the answer. When we can’t come together in person to learn from one another, we rely on books to challenge misconceptions and introduce new perspectives.

A common refrain in education is that a strong literary curriculum offers students both windows and mirrors –a means to step into the shoes of others while also reflecting on our own world of experiences. This is why diverse literature showcasing various characters and themes is critical to opening minds and softening hearts.

Yet a report by PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression in literature, found that our state of Florida ranks second among states with the most book bans. Most of these involve themes or characters of diverse backgrounds, orientations, races and cultures – the very same “others” who are being vilified in our increasingly divided country.

At Community Day School, we would never dream of limiting access to “others” – whether they be people, ideas or viewpoints. Only by opening doors to other cultures and life experiences can we ensure that the next generation will have the capacity to appreciate differences, reject stereotypes and find common ground where hatred cannot grow.

Dan Ceaser is the head of school at Hershorin Schiff Community Day School in Sarasota.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Education will always be the best antidote for hatred