A German-American who stood up

Today's leaders could learn from the NY school principal who fought bigotry by thinking outside the box.

anti-Semitism 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
anti-Semitism 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The recent wave of anti-Semitic outbursts in various countries raises important questions about how to respond effectively to such assaults. A little-known episode that took place 65 years ago last week, involving a German-American high school principal, may provide some guidance. The latest outrages have included the planting of a bomb at the Lutzk Progressive Jewish Congregation, in the Ukrainian city of Kiev; the mob attack on the Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas, Venezuela; an eightfold increase in anti-Semitic attacks in England; and shouts of "Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the gas!" at a rally in Amsterdam. In the United States, incidents have ranged from celebrity outbursts such as rock singer Courtney Love accusing "Jew loan officers and Jew private banks" of stealing from her, to sixth graders in St. Louis staging a "Hit a Jew Day" in their school. Curiously, their principal, Linda Lelonek, decided that the students' action was not anti-Semitic, on the grounds that "you've got remorse, you've got tears, you've got embarrassment. Not anti-Semitic behavior at all." SIXTY-FIVE YEARS AGO last week, a German-American high-school principal in New York was confronted with anti-Semitism and responded very differently. In February 1944, five students from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens were caught painting anti-Semitic slogans in the nearby town of Queens Village. Principal Ralph Haller faced a dilemma. Technically, he had no jurisdiction over what students did outside school grounds. But he understood the moral importance of going beyond the letter of the law to find a way to punish the attackers and send a message to potential anti-Semitic vandals everywhere. Where there was a will, there was a way. Searching the rule books, Haller found he was permitted to prevent a student from graduating if he or she demonstrated "poor American citizenship." At a meeting of parents on February 12, 1944, the principal declared: "I consider such [anti-Semitic] activities totally in contradiction to everything that the America of today or the America which we hope to have tomorrow stands for." Therefore, he announced, his new policy would be to consider anti-Semitism by definition as un-American, and he would block the graduation of any student involved in anti-Semitic acts. Haller noted that he had "counseled with many non-Jewish principals" as well as assistant superintendent of schools William Hamm, and found them all in agreement with his choice of punishment. Haller emphasized that as a Protestant and a German-American, "I feel that I have the right and duty to speak out on this issue." Haller's action is all the more impressive when one recalls the extent of anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi sentiment among his fellow German-Americans. Just five years earlier, more than 20,000 Bund supporters had filled Madison Square Garden for a pro-Hitler rally. And in nearby Suffolk County in the late 1930s, tens of thousands of German-Americans each weekend flocked to Camp Siegfried, a pro-Hitler summer retreat, for Nazi-style parades, propaganda sessions and rounds of the "Horst Wessel Song" ("When Jewish blood drips from the knife/Then will the German people prosper"). But Ralph Haller was cut from a different cloth. He stood apart from the crowd - and stood up for justice by thinking outside the box. TODAY, TOO, creative and courageous thinking is needed to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
  • School principals need to respond swiftly and forcefully to anti-Semitic eruptions. The "Hit a Jew Day" students in St. Louis deserved more than brief suspensions. And it was wrong for the principal to refrain from penalizing other students who verbally taunted Jewish children and encouraged the "hitters." Principals should not make excuses for violent, bigoted students.
  • Celebrity anti-Semitism should not be laughed off. We all chuckle at the foibles of public figures. But when their unorthodox behavior crosses the line into expressions of bigotry, it is no longer harmless fun. The culprits need to be ostracized.
  • World leaders need to speak out. The European Union Parliament, which has been meeting in Strasbourg, has so far refrained from explicitly condemning the recent wave of anti-Semitism. The EU's voice needs to be heard, loud and clear.
  • Economic leverage should be used to combat anti-Semitism. Some regimes that the US and Europe regard as friendly, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, permit the inclusion of anti-Semitic material in their government-controlled media and school textbooks. Western economic aid to such regimes should be used to exert pressure against anti-Semitism - just as international pressure forced the United Arab Emirates in 2004 to shut down the Zayed Center, which promoted anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial. Anti-Semitism can never be completely eliminated. But leaders who make an extra effort to penalize offenders can help create an environment in which hatred is regarded as unacceptable and haters are confined to the furthest margins of society. That's what Ralph Haller was trying to do in 1944. Let's learn from his example. The writer is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America's response to the Holocaust. www.WymanInstitute.org