School buses in Boston lined up on the first day of school in 2014.
School buses in Boston lined up on the first day of school in 2014.David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the experience of Jewish school-aged children in diaspora public schools reflected our challenges, struggles, and even our suffering. This is a tale of our experience in three countries, ending with the United States.

I. Jewish Children’s Experiences in Nazi Public Schools

The low water mark was Nazi Germany. From 1933 until 1945, our children were subjected to heartbreaking, traumatic, and even violent treatment.

In March of 1933 Adolph Hitler achieved quasi-dictatorial powers for the first time. Only weeks later the Nazi’s flood of anti-Jewish legislation and action began. In the beginning of April Jewish school children were targeted. Thousands as young as five years old were expelled without notice.

Next, the Nazi’s fired all Jewish teachers. They manipulated school curricula to include the junk science theory of Aryan racial supremacy (and Jewish inferiority). The Nazis then purged all German-Jewish events and achievements from history, science, and even art textbooks. They “cancelled” and erased all German-Jewish war heroes, performers, scientists, inventors, and industrialists.

They next required school lessons that were designed to distance Jewish students from their Jewish identity. Teachers required Jewish students to sing along with songs critical of and insulting to Judaism and Jewish culture. Jews could no longer join school clubs or participate in extra-curricular activities. Jews were even prohibited from using the same chairs and desks as Germans.

Ultimately the Nazis simply banned Jews from high schools and universities altogether. They continued to admit some Jews to primary schools for the next three years.

The lives of Jewish students in this environment were turbulent, miserable, and brutal. With the full backing of the German state Jewish children were marginalized, hated, and abused. There were beatings and suicides.

One can only imagine the fear, the shame, and the pain of young Jewish boys and girls. Waking up every morning, walking to school, entering the gates or into the schoolyard. Confronting the daily jeers, insults, vows, and violence. Suffering at the hands of not only students but some teachers. Teachers who seemed to transform overnight from patient and kind into monstrous, evil, and intolerant versions of themselves.

Facing full-throated international uproar over these and so many other anti-Semitic measures, the Nazis largely took a break from targeting Jewish children after 1933. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were on the horizon. When they ended, however, so too did the Nazi ceasefire with Jewish children. In 1936, they simply expelled every remaining Jewish child from public and private primary schools in Germany.

Still bound by various WWI-era treaties that required universal primary education for ethnic minorities, the Nazis promised to set up separate Jewish schools. They never did. Instead, they shifted the burden of establishing schools over to Jewish communities.

Thanks to both German and international Jewish leadership and philanthropy, dozens of such schools were set up in record time. But before these Jewish “ghetto” schools had a chance to thrive, all Jewish students who could be found – along with their parents – were transported to death camps.

II. Jewish Children’s Experiences in French Public Schools from 2000 to the Present

If Jewish children’s experiences in German schools is history’s low-water mark, how should we view their present experience in French public schools?

For one, the French Republic does not sponsor anti-Jewish violence. The French Republic did not, for example, sanction the 2012 killing of three Jewish pupils and their teacher by a Muslim gunman in southern France.

The dead included Jonathan Sandler, 30, a rabbi and teacher at the school who was shot outside the school gates. At the moment of his death, Rabbi Sandler was trying to shield his two young sons. The gunman shot both boys anyway, killing 5-year-old Arié and 3-year-old Gabriel. He then chased, shot and killed 8-year-old Myriam Monsonego, catching her by her hair and shooting her at point-blank range in the temple.

The French Republic also does not encourage the beatings and abuse of Jewish school children by Muslim classmates and Muslim neighbors. Yet that doesn’t stop these events from occurring regularly. In a 2020 survey, 59% of French Jewish schoolchildren said that they had suffered physical abuse in (and presumably on the way to) school. Many of these cases have been documented.

In 2018, Muslim men stalked and beat an 8-year old boy to the ground for wearing a kippa. In another incident, a Muslim man slashed a 15-year-old girl’s face for wearing her Jewish school uniform. In another 2018 incident, a group of Muslim boys stalked and verbally threatened another 15-year-old Jewish girl. In an earlier incident, a gang of North African men, carrying hammers and iron bars, beat three Jewish schoolboys at Beth Menahem School in Lyon. A 10-year-old Jewish girl was beaten in the ribs and abdomen in 2017 in Paris. Nearly every parent and every child in French public school, and even those in private schools, has a story.

To protect their children, the majority of French Jews have now had to abandon public schools. Some 70% of all school-age Jewish children, among the highest proportion in Europe, now attend Jewish religious schools. There are now nearly 200 such schools in France. Children’s sports programs are usually Jewish-only matches now as well for security reasons. In 2020, a top French official finally conceded publicly that “Jews in particular are the target of Islamist attacks.”

These measures by the Jewish community have not stopped the violence, however. It has only made it somewhat more challenging for criminals, who have become more brazen, attacking Jews before they enter school property or actually trespassing to find victims.

The violence against Jewish school children grew so bad that in 2015 the government called in the French Army. The army stood watch, protecting Jewish schools until 2016. There are calls now to bring them back.

France’s 475,000 Jews represent less than 1 percent of the country’s population. Over the last few years, all of the attacks on Jewish school children were perpetrated by Muslims. There are about six million Muslims in France, who now outnumber Jews more than 10-1. Their population is anticipated to grow to 9 million by 2050, even with no additional immigration. Yet France permits significant North African immigration every year.

Given these less-than-rosy statistics it is no surprise that in the last 30 years, 62,890 French Jews have made Aliyah. That’s over 30% of the total French Jewish population that described itself as traditional or religious. Families with school age children or with children nearing the age for school have been the ones most likely to consider Aliyah.

French President Emmanuel Macron has responded. Now that nearly a third of the traditional Jewish community has decamped to Israel and many more to other countries, he says his government is working on a plan to counter what he calls “Islamist separatism.” He correctly has identified an element of the problem in France to be Muslim home-schooling. Families often have no ties whatsoever to the French public square. Ironic as it is, under President Macron’s plan Muslims will be required to attend the same state-recognized public schools that Muslims have made impossible for Jewish children.

While President Macron’s plan is a start, it addresses a symptom and not the ailment. The ailment is French immigration policy. It is a policy that seeks to gradually replace the historical composition of the French Republic. And the replacement population is a group that on the whole does not appear to be particularly interested in concepts of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

For the countless Jewish victims of Muslim beatings, abuse, humiliation, trauma, and bullying in French schools, there is a simple question to ask. Were these crimes not all indirectly tied to French legislative malpractice on its immigration policy? Are Rabbi Jonathan, Arié, and Gabriel Sandler and young Myriam Monsonego any less dead having been killed at the hands of a gunman, not a government?

The man who took these four Jewish lives at Ozar Hatorah Jewish Day School was later shot while resisting arrest. When his corpse was delivered to the home of his mother and brothers “people came over. They cried tears of joy. They said that he had brought France to its knees. That he did well. Their only regret was that he had not killed more Jewish children.” So revealed the shooter’s brother, a co-conspirator in the case. The shooter’s sister, also a French citizen, said “I am proud of my brother. He fought until the end.”

France’s treatment of Jewish school children has not reached the low-water mark of Nazi Germany. But it raises a question: does intent matter when it comes to a diaspora government policy that makes our children’s experience in school unsafe, unhappy, and untenable?

With 70% of French Jewish children in cloistered, often heavily-guarded Jewish schools, it is hard to say that for the remaining 30% a Nazi-era primary school was much worse. You can imagine the stress, fear, uncertainty, and discomfort of a 12-year-old French Jewish girl. As she walks through the school gate. And into the lion’s mouth, surrounded by North African Muslim boys with a documented history of hatred and violence. Their contempt. Their slurs. The rude gestures. The threats. The inappropriate touching. The glaring and the jeering. Almost every day.

The innocence and peace of childhood cut short by the well-intentioned idiocy of self-hating French social engineers. Some of them apparently atoning for the North African colonial escapades of their long deceased great-grandparents.

Over 75% of French Jews fled North Africa to escape murder, brutality, and dhimmitude. Facing a demographic tidal wave that will overwhelm Jews in that country, what is a Jewish parent in France to do?

III. Jewish children in 20th Century American Public Schools and Today

For nearly a century, the high-water mark for diaspora Jewish children was the public school system in the United States. During the period of greatest Jewish immigration to America, from 1881 to 1914, school systems in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston managed a magical production line.

On one end of this factory arrived the raw materials: immigrant children. They were impoverished. Among them they spoke nearly 50 different languages. The one language they didn’t speak was the one they needed.

Children often had after-school and weekend work obligations. Some filled roles supporting their working parents. By today’s standards the mission presented to teachers would have been deemed utterly impossible.

Yet for early 20th century teachers, it wasn’t. It took about a decade to fashion, but these urban schools generally produced a competent, employable, English-speaking American. A young citizen. Equipped with some of the tools needed to succeed and live a happy life. They did the job with a fraction of the inflation-adjusted budget we allocate today. Classes could have as many as 40 pupils to one teacher.

For many of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents from immigrant Jewish communities the public educational system worked. The recipe appears to be simple: a tight-knit neighborhood, shul-centered religious education, a strong family, and a public school.

These schools produced America’s Greatest Generation. Our recipe produced not one but several of the greatest generations of American Jews.

Significantly, the majority of Jews who sailed into the harbors of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New Orleans did not lose their identities. They did not lose their religion. Nor did their children. The American public school system more often buttressed – and did not conflict with – Jewish values.

What were those American values?

The public school educators of yore embraced and imparted to students the national yearning for liberty, individualism, independence, free enterprise, providence, spirituality, and personal industry, to name a few.

For Jewish immigrant families from Kiev, Warsaw, Vilnius, or any number of other Eastern European cities, American legal traditions were also a treasure to behold. Who had ever heard of religious freedom, freedom of speech and debate, assembly, and legal equality? What a contrast it was to the world they left.

Public school education, by definition, encourages integration and assimilation. It seeks conformity to a state-sponsored ideal. But American public schools, unlike European counterparts, accommodated the Jewish community, even closing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and keeping “winter holiday” festivities multi-denominational.

Jewish families and our Jewish institutions were also so strong that our parents and grandparents were often able to take the best from both the secular world and the world of our ancestors. Most were able to balance the holy and the mundane, the secular and the ancient, pride for the stars and stripes with the honor due to our Jewish heritage and history, the joy of a July 4 picnic with the intimacy of a Pesach Seder. The two cultures did not contradict each other, they blended synergetically.

What a privilege for them and their children to be able to live between two robust, vivid, and dynamic worlds. Some of us still do.

Since the above is clearly an account from recent history, not the present, what happened? Things are moving so quickly and retrograde. Institutions and fundamental principles that stood as immutable fixtures of our childhoods have changed before our eyes. Some have even vanished.

The highest-level breakdown at American public schools is centered upon values. Character is destiny; not only for people but for institutions. In a transformation that would shock most 20th century teachers, major aspects of the American public school curricula have been gutted. Some areas of study like history and civics, are almost unrecognizable compared to a generation ago. An entire additional article can be written on this, but a summary is appropriate:

Marxist critical race theory is in the process of successfully eclipsing traditional American conceptions of American equality and exceptionalism. While five states have now outlawed teaching critical race theory, the only state home to a significant Jewish population that banned CRT is Florida.

Socialism, which is enjoying a seemingly impossible resurgence in our schools after the horrors it wrought in the 20th Century is at odds with a basic understanding of traditional conceptions of American liberty, free enterprise, and personal industry.

Lessons about so-called American exploitative colonialism have replaced the former generation’s study of America’s sacrifice of blood and treasure to help save the world from Nazi Germany, Tojo’s Japan, and The Kaiser in WWI.

And yes, as has been recounted in this publication, in American public schools Israel is sometimes falsely held out as a so-called apartheid state, one oppressing its Palestinian Arab minority.

This wokeism is ruining our schools. And it is deadly serious. It is the most current iteration of a cultural Marxism that we, as Jews, have seen before. It is a linear descendent of the Marxism that erased – through forcible and brutal assimilation – over one million Jews in Soviet Bloc countries beginning in 1917.

We’ve seen and lived through regimes that shamelessly manipulated children’s curriculums before. This experiment never goes well for us. And as the canary in the coal mine, it never goes well for our host countries.

There is still a smattering of old guard teachers quietly reading the National Review Online or Catholic Digest in a dark corner of the faculty lounge. A few are brave enough to teach critical thinking skills, while dancing around the dogma minefield. But at the end of the day, there is no way to escape the conclusion that American public schools are not imparting consistent values. They are now officially imparting conflicting values.

Since Jewish children can learn mathematics, geography, and chemistry anywhere, why subject them to a corrupt environment, fraudulent history, and racially-divisive theories?

Some children can take some shelter from this madness in small town public schools and in isolated school districts. But there really is no escaping. Even if you live in a rural area your American teen will likely be speaking to you soon enough about gender fluidity, racial oppression, atheism, and maybe even Zionist aggression.

In prior generations, Jewish parents seemed better equipped to handle this. An indefatigable Jewish community stood by them. That is still true in most Orthodox communities. We are also still blessed by an alphabet soup of vigilant community institutions, established and supported by amazing Jewish philanthropists.

Nevertheless, for the majority of the nearly 1.8 million Jewish children in America, does this support network reach them anymore? Will the clash of values even be apparent to the majority of Jewish mothers and fathers, many of whom today describe themselves as having no religion, no shul, and no connection to the greater Jewish community?

When their children are confronted by criticism of Israel, the IDF, or Torah values will they speak up? Or will they say and feel nothing at all?

Chris רמי Robbins is a writer, real estate developer, pilot, and boat captain. He lives in Denver, Colorado.