'How to torture a Jew': Parent outraged after Bible class antisemitism

A teacher told students that they could "torture a Jew" by making them say the transliteration of God's name out loud.

 Tennessee state flag (photo credit: Thomas R Machnitzki/Wikimedia Commons)
Tennessee state flag
(photo credit: Thomas R Machnitzki/Wikimedia Commons)

A parent of a Jewish student expressed outrage after a Bible class teacher at a public school near Chattanooga, Tennessee pushed Christian ideology and advised students on "how to torture a Jew."

Juniper Russo, in a post that was reposted on her wife's page after Facebook deleted the original post for "hate speech," wrote that she had been hesitant to enroll her daughter in the "Bible in the Schools" elective program, although it was meant to teach the bible from an unbiased and non-sectarian viewpoint as a literary document.

Russo added that she had enrolled her daughter in the program because she has disabilities that made the other available electives in that time block inaccessible to her. 

According to the parent, the teacher of the "Bible in the Schools" program at East Hamilton Middle School, gave students a syllabus that included what she called "incredibly abrasive" language and rules that would allow her to refuse to let children go to the restroom.

Assignments given to students included questions such as "do you read the Bible at home?" and "which books of the Bible have you read?" Students were told a story about an atheist student who took the class to "prove it wrong" and later ended up "realizing it was true."

First edition of King James Bible (credit: FLICKR)First edition of King James Bible (credit: FLICKR)

Russo called the class "blatant Christian proselytizing." The class was shown videos made by The Bible Project, including one video which portrayed Christianity as light, sunshine and color and all other global religions as storms, darkness and shadows, according to Russo.

While Russo was already uncomfortable with how the class was being taught, she wrote that she drew a hard line and took her daughter out of the class when it "turned hostile" last week.

The teacher "wrote an English transliteration of the Hebrew name of God on the whiteboard," wrote Russo. "This name is traditionally not spoken out loud and is traditionally only written in the Torah. She then told her students, 'If you want to know how to torture a Jew, make them say this out loud.'”

"My daughter felt extremely uncomfortable hearing a teacher instruct her peers on 'how to torture a Jew' and told me when she came home from school that she didn’t feel safe in the class," added the parent. "How can we say that our schools have zero tolerance for bullying if a teacher is actually instructing students on how to do it?"

Russo wrote that she emailed the teacher and the school administration asking them to meet with them, her daughter and the director of the local Jewish Federation so she could explain her concerns. The teacher did not respond, but the school's principal later called Russo and told her that while the administration was taking her concerns seriously, the teacher was refusing to meet her as she said it was against the policy of the Bible in the Schools program.

"I have been a parent for 14 years and I have never in my life heard of a teacher refusing to meet with a parent," said Russo. "Although [the principal] was kind on the phone and I would like to think that [the teacher] will face some kind of consequences for her decisions, it’s not enough. I’m angry and I’m hurt."

Russo added that the program has been used for over 100 years to "force religion in public schools and to ostracize children who are not Christian" and stressed that the incident was coming in the wake of the ban on "Maus," a graphic novel about the Holocaust, by McMinn County which is located near Chattanooga.

Russo has contacted the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga and the Anti-Defamation League.

The Bible in the Schools program has been operating in Hamilton County public schools since 1922 and allows students to study the Bible from a "literary or historical perspective" and from a "viewpoint-neutral, court-approved curriculum," according to the program's website. The program adds that it is "inclusive to students from all walks of life and seeks equal access for all public school students."

In 1963, the US Supreme Court ruled in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp that while legally or officially mandated Bible reading or prayer in public schools is unconstitutional, the study of the Bible or religion, "when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education," could be carried out without violating the First Amendment.

"Hamilton County Schools is committed to ensuring that our students and staff experience a climate of belonging and support," Steve Doremus, communications officer for the school district, said in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "This week, HCS received a parent complaint concerning classroom activities involving the Bible History elective course at East Hamilton Middle School. In accordance with school board policy, the district is investigating the complaint. When completed, HCS will take appropriate steps based on the findings of that review."

"The Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga is aware of the issues concerning an elective Bible class at East Hamilton Middle School and appreciate both East Hamilton and HCS investigating the claims and taking them seriously," said Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, to the Times Free Press. "The Jewish Federation has a long history of working with our multi-faith partners as well as HCS to help create an appreciation for diversity and understanding of all faiths and cultures. Moving forward, we look forward to a healthy dialog with the Bible in the Schools organization. Additionally, we hope they use this as an opportunity to reflect on and assess both their curriculum and how their teachers are presenting the material to ensure these classes are education, not indoctrination."