Teens in Great Britain taking the GCSE high school proficiency exams were asked to write a short essay in response to this question: “Explain briefly why some people are prejudiced against Jews.”
When Jewish leaders and other observers suggested the question was a tad inappropriate, an exam board spokesperson said that the question referred to a “relevant part of the syllabus [that] covers prejudice and discrimination with reference to race, religion and the Jewish experience of persecution.
“We would expect [students to refer] to the Holocaust to illustrate prejudice based on irrational fear, ignorance and scapegoating.”
Sure, you can expect that. But the question also invites a whole set of other answers. When a mom asks a kid, “Why don’t you go play with Timmy down the block?” she’s merely urging the kid to get out of the house. But she shouldn’t be surprised when the kid replies, “Because I hate him and he smells and he’s a poopoo head.”
Rabbi David Meyer, the executive head of London’s Hasmonean High School, says this in somewhat more elevated terms:
“The role of education is to remove prejudices and not to justify them,” he said. The question “plants suggestions and implies ideas that shouldn’t be instilled into students.”
But would it ever be appropriate to explore the roots of anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudice? Sure — whole books, many written by Jews, have been devoted to the subject. (“Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism” by Prager and Telushkin is probably the best known.) It’s an important question to ask if you want to understand history, dispell bad ideas, and give people the tools not to repeat them.
Aish makes an interesting distinction in its treatment of Why the Jews: ”When we study any theory, it is important to distinguish between a ’cause’ and an ‘excuse.’” Helping students understand the difference seems like a worthwhile lesson.
So what would be an appropriate question? How about, “Provide a frequently cited reason for anti-Semitism and describe its impact on a Jewish community,” or maybe, “Discuss an episode of prejudice directed at the Jews and the attitudes and events that give rise to such bigotry.”