Explain why Jews are evil

Dan Amira writes,

An unnamed English teacher at Albany High School who wanted to "challenge" his/her students to "formulate a persuasive argument" tasked them with writing an essay about why "Jews are evil," as if they were trying to convince a Nazi official of their loyalty

Time for a teacher training day!


  1. Let me try to thread this needle… this teacher might be a crazy racist, but I think there is an interesting point here. In school and even popular culture, we present Nazi as evil carnate climbing up from the depths of Hell, which in reality Europe had many thousands of years of hatred of Jews. Several times in the middle ages, countries despoiled the Jews to pay for their activities. And the Nazi came out of a popular movement, and used Jewish hatred to help solidify power (any correlation to today ::cough:: ::cough:: gays, blacks, Muslims, immigrants?)

    Still, even if it was a thoughtful attempt to show a wider reality, it was very, very, very stupid and insulting.

  2. Exactly which groups would it be OK to use in such an exercise?  Fat people?  It’s still legal to mock and discrimate against them, isn’t it?

    My grade school had us debate the proposition “All dogs should be painted blue” and we were randomly assigned teams.  A team in favor of the proposition won the debate, although mostly because their opponents were overconfident.

          1.  Benedict Cumberbatch is a natural ginger as far as I remember.

            Just leaving this here.

      1. I *think* he was making the same point you are actually. As in, we still have people we mock openly without regard to their feelings due to our own prejudices. 

  3. I think you should be careful to say that it’s an interesting exercise (“Put yourself in the shoes of a Nazi propagandist”), rather than an interesting
    question (“Hmm yes, so why are Jews evil?”).

    But I agree with your sentiment, and applaud you for sticking your neck out first :)

  4. The only thing I can imagine that would mitigate the absolute Fail of this assignment would be if he had a follow-up assignment planned where students would be required to write a second essay to refute the first, and a whole lot of discussion about how such mindsets can lead to atrocities.

    Something along the lines of the classroom experiment that Iowa teacher Jane Elliott did in the late 1960s, perhaps.

    1. For me, at least, the thought exercise is the fact that there isn’t anything that makes Jews evil. Therefore asking the question will ideally provoke the ‘huh, I guess nothing.’ response. Maybe there’d been Jew bashing in the class – or some Borat references that made the teacher uncomfortable.

      I wasn’t suggesting there was actually something evil about Jewish people 0.o

      1. Possibly so, but in any case his execution sounds like it needs a heck of a lot of work to say the least.

    2. I think that it is a fine study of propaganda, groupthink, the function of outrage as a hook for manipulation, ditto fear… such a rich field.

      I doubt that a refuting essay would be necessary. Surely the role of everybody involved has been gone over a thousand times. Heck, the assignment is to contrive a lie, after all.

  5. Pretty sure society has decided that it’s unacceptable either way. What possible benefit is there to have students debate this? WWII has all the documentation necessary to warn young minds how terrible such lines of thinking are.

    All you have to do is haul the class to the remains of Auschwitz and I guarantee every last one of them will get the point without mandating they try to defend genocide.

          1. If he seems edgy, he wants you to know,
            That he never meant to take it out on you.

    1. I think you haven’t spent much time in a classroom. Holocaust denial-ism is very much alive and well.

      This teacher could be doing his or her very best to create an environment of thought and discourse. Following this lesson by reading something like Elie Wiesel’s “Night” or Art Spiegleman’s “Maus”. Student’s minds need more then just evidence. Trust me, you can take the student to Auschwitz but you can’t make him think.

    2. Except most people… don’t. They just don’t get the point. Even the ones who understand it’s not okay to hate on Jews anymore don’t exactly understand the rationale of why, or how things actually happened, or that the mindset that resulted in the holocaust is alive and well even today.

      World War II means nothing to many people – it’s little more than a historical curiosity, rapidly fading from memory. Just another war fought a long time ago, with terrible things happening to people who don’t deserve it. It’s not personal. It has no heft, no weight. This (potentially) could.

      Again, this could be terrible… or it could be a valuable learning experience. I certainly can’t tell from here – the context and framing is incredibly important. This might have nothing to do with Jews or Nazi’s at all, and rather about the deception that normal people need to engage in to survive under a hostile authority, or even just an exercise in arguing a view without believing in it (Which seems to be part and parcel of the exercise from the description, indicating as it does that the argument is solely to convince an outside party of your loyalty)

      And I doubt there are many schools that could afford to send their students to Auschwitz, and I doubt they’d come away with anything approaching a deeper understanding of exactly what was wrong about it. It would probably end at “the Nazis were bad guys, and it’s awfully good we, the good guys, defeated them!”

    3. Triumph Of The Will is on the viewing list for just about every Intro to Film Studies class for very similar reasons.  

      And “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from Cabaret, presented without context (so the reveal at the end of the slow zoom out was actually surprising) was the week’s viewing for a teen film discussion group at my synagogue.

      Without knowing more I’m going to take the position that this is a clumsily-executed attempt at a thought-provoking exercise, along the lines of having debate students do a mock trial of  Dredd Scott v. Sandford rather than something like Gideon v. Wainright.

    4. I’ll just sign my class up for those free, gratis, all-expenses-paid weekly trips to Auschwitz that are always scheduled.

      1. Or, if they’re Jewish, for those gratis “heritage tours” to Oh So Wonderful Israel. Not that that would put a better spin for such students on just which group practices “evil” these days. Maybe have a Palestinian Guest Speaker Day for that.

  6. We used to do a similar method in my debate class. The point that its offensive and deliberately not your opinion is actually part of the exercise. You can easily defend a point you believe in, but what if you obviously don’t?

    Also, the concept of “as if they were trying to convince a Nazi official of their loyalty” is actually very important here. This is intended as a role playing exercise. The students appear, to my reading of the assignment, to be attempting to convince the Nazis of their loyalty. Many people would have to feign this sort of loyalty and sell it (even while protecting the same Jews they claimed to hate).I honestly don’t see the actual problem here, outside of implying a particular intent that doesn’t appear to be there.

    1.  Understanding the thinking of bad people is a key to defeating them. I’m reminded of the line in the movie Patton where the general raises his arm and shouts “I read your [Rommel’s] book, you bastard.]”

      1.  Yeah, but Patton didn’t read Rommel’s book to understand the thinking of a bad person.  He read Rommel’s book because he had great respect for Rommel as a field commander and genuinely wanted to learn stuff.  It’s pretty obvious from the fact that Patton calls Rommel not merely “bastard” but “you magnificent bastard.”

      2. Hollywood films make for good drama, but inaccurate history.  Patton and Rommel never met on the battlefield.   Each had a reputation for having enormous egos.  Calling Rommel “magnificent” could be interpreted as respect for a ‘worthy adversary’, but it is also a way for Patton to polish his own image.

        1. The film doesn’t portray Patton and Rommel meeting on the battlefield so I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

    2. I watched WWII anti-Japanese propaganda in high school.  That teacher would be fired today, I’m sure, but the point of the exercise was to show how effective good propaganda could be at dehumanizing people you see as your enemy.

      This debate reminds me a little of how many schools have banned Huckeberry Finn from being taught because of the n-word.  You know…honestly…yeah, I get the current mindset that if a marginalized person is offended, you need to shut up and just do what they say.  But I disagree wholeheartedly.  Mark Twain didn’t write Hucklebery Finn to offend black people, he wrote it to make white people think about their own prejudice.  The book is still important, and not just as a look at American history, unfortunately. And I think the book makes some important points that some more radical elements of social justice movements need to keep in mind.

      1. I get the current mindset that if a marginalized person is offended, you need to shut up and just do what they say. But I disagree wholeheartedly.

        Of course you do. Because it’s meaningless to you. You don’t live with a reality in which slurs frequently lead to systematic discrimination and violence by individuals and the state. Fortunately, some of us are capable of empathy, not to mention the higher brain functions required to understand the consequences that such language has on people. Your opinion is without value.

    3. But even a debate teacher needs to present such challenges with the sensitivities of others in mind. It is most certainly NOT a given that all modern-day Americans eschew all anti-Semitic values, and a Jewish kid in the class would almost certainly be uncomfortable hearing all his classmates demonize him using hateful stereotypes that persist to this day.

      We know for a fact that this particular teacher’s students found the assignment offensive because a third of them flat-out refused to do it.

      Similarly Bad Ideas for essay topics:

      * Explain why Latinas are hot-blooded skanks
      * Explain why Black people are lazy
      * Explain why Muslims are terrorists
      …need I go on?

      1. No, I disagree that your examples are similar; they are much worse because you have failed to supply the circumstances under which such arguments would be required, as opposed to the original case in which the situation was explicitly defined, as proving your “loyalty” to the Nazis.
        Although having said that, your last one might work if the additional clause said “It’s 2002 and you really want that job on Fox News”.   (this is a joke, for the humour-impaired)

    4. I’m sure that if the teacher had asked a mixed race class to “explain why white people are the devil”, everyone would think that this was hunky dory.

  7. It strikes me as an eminently efficient educational exercise.

    A deconstructive cartoon of how potent, deeply-moving rationale can be contrived to justify pretty much anything and how you’ll no doubt happily buy right into it if the appropriate emotional responses can be leveraged – with a veritable VAT of historical examples! 

    It’s socially relevant as heck. Have you been propagandized today?

  8. This essay is, of course, standard curriculum throughout the Middle East and there is usually, for example in Syria, a checklist of 9 or so “detestable traits of the Jew” that the essays are graded against.  It’s somewhat of a test of imagination as, with the exception of Iran and Israel, there are no Jews to observe since they were all Ethnically Cleansed out in the 60s.

    Having a look at how the governments who push this line treat the rest of their citizens, once again using Syria as an example in its burning of Syrian cities to the ground (again), points out the validity of that old historical law “First the Jew; then you!”

    1. At least Israel didn’t clear out the Palestinians completely.  They kept some to do their landscaping and road work.

  9. I think there’s something to be said for learning about the propaganda that some group used in order to pick it apart and see both why it’s initially convincing to many and also why it doesn’t hold water under analysis. Part of the problem with demonizing Nazi’s is that it makes it harder to understand that any of us has the potential to do terrible things under certain circumstances.
    Still, this exercise seems like it could easily get out of hand and cause a lot of damage.

    1. If you wanted to do an exercise on the Nazis, it would have been better to choose a group that wasn’t actually targeted and largely exterminated by them. The assignment could have been to explain why people from Albany are evil, which would have rendered it theoretical.

  10. Might this work better if the assignment were for each student to write hate-propaganda against their *own* ethnicity, skin color, hair color, religion, sexual orientation, sex identity, intersex status, disability, or any other characteristic…?

    1. I like that. Gets around the whole singling people out thing since it’s effectivly ‘why is the person in the mirror inherently infirror in the eyes of others’

      Follow up ‘why is the first essay wrong?

      Would still need to be cleared with the board first.

  11. As the linked article points out it would be trivial to come up with writing assignment which forces the students to defend controversial or even deplorable sentiments but which doesn’t single out a particular ethnic or religious group that is already frequently maligned.  I’d bet the intent wasn’t malicious but it was certainly a stupid move on the teacher’s part.

    I like the idea of having kids do a writing assignment that forces them to think from a point of view they’d usually find anathema but this was just not well conceived.

    Do your own “put yourself in their shoes” experiment.  Try to imagine being Jewish and in this class and thus having to write a paper about how you and your family are evil while knowing all the non-Jewish kids around you are doing the same.  Not cool.

  12. Wow. I’ve watch that movie a million times since it came out, and I just got that now… lol!

  13. After clicking through the links to the original article, I conclude that this was a somewhat poorly considered attempt at teaching rhetorical skills by getting students to make arguments in favor of what most of us regard as a noxious ideological position. The lesson would be — that by employing rhetorical tactics — one can make a persuasive argument for any position, right or wrong. It’s the ancient Greek art of sophistry.

    1. The art is called “rhetoric”.  Sophism was a philosophical school that focused on the use of rhetoric.  “Sophistry” was and is a pejorative term implying that someone is as full of shit as the Sophists were.

      1. What you say is true in modern terms, not as the Greeks regarded it:

        “Sophism in the modern definition is a specious argument used for deceiving someone. In ancient Greece, sophists were a category of teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric for the purpose of teaching arete—excellence, or virtue—predominantly to young statesmen and nobility.”

        1. Yeah, I read it too to check my facts before making my comment. 

          I’ve never heard anyone use the word “sophism” in this way, though; only ever “sophistry”.  I’ve only ever heard “sophism” used to refer to the ancient Greek school.  I think wikipedia is just wrong about that.  It does happen from time to time you know.

          It’s incidental to what I was correcting you about; “sophism” is not the ancient Greek art in question. That would be “rhetoric”.

          1. I informed you that I was doing it out of courtesy so anyone reading it could see what transpired, calm down. I agreed that your definition of the term sophistry as distinguished from the philosophy of Sophism is correct. I’m just not interested in getting into a didactic debate over words when the subject is something else.

  14. Hurray for the students!  1/3 refused to complete the assignment.  They should get an “A”.  Nice to know that our schools can still teach independent thought.

  15. I assumed that people served it every year at Passover to help remind themselves of the suffering of the Jews. Every year I think, “hey, maybe someone came up with a new recipe that is actually delicious, I’ll try it.” Every year, suffering.

      1. I’ve had mostly canned (shudder), but also some homemade and restaurant made.

        I’d try making a fried sephardic fritter version and bring it to Passover if I thought people would be receptive.

  16. This post on BB is a 
       -link to an editorial (I think?) in an online news site, 
            -which links to a *real* article from the Times Union, about how the school is apologizing for the actions of the teacher.

    I just want to point out how we are 3 degrees of separation and 2 degrees of “constructed narrative” away from the primary source – which is itself a story about the school apologizing for the original event.

    Now that all of that is out of the way – I don’t think this is anything that “the internet at large” should spend its time getting involved in and to me it is quite obvious that the teacher was constructing a rather blatant thought experiment for his students to struggle through.

    AKA –  A big fat non issue.

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  18. I think we all agree that, as a measure of teacher performance, standardized student tests are a major fail.

    Instead, we should take isolated exercises, out of context, and extrapolate all the ways we think the teacher could be mishandling the assignment, and grade them accordingly.

  19. OTOH, this happens (perhaps to a less inflammatory degree) every day at one Debate Club or another, and in every law school.  I happen to think that choosing to argue one side of an issue, or being assigned to argue that side (hired lawyers do), is bullshit, but it sure goes on all the time.   

  20. This is at a high school.  Very bad judgment on the part of the teacher.  Would it be an interesting exercise at the college level?  Maybe, if it were being done within the context of trying to find as many justifications as possible, then demolishing those justifications with facts and ethnics.  Otherwise….this teacher needs to be evaluated, now, and not allowed back in a classroom until s/he has shown an ability to make good ethical and pedagogical decisions.

  21. Does anyone actually think the teacher is a neo-nazi? Attempting to understand the point of view of a person/s you despise doesn’t mean you are adopting those views. This is an e-lynching being carried out because someone didn’t properly tip-toe, and I really hate watching one of these whenever they happen.

  22. If ever there was a high school assignment you could use the Internet to cheat on, this is it. Plenty of go-to sources. Of course, you’re probably going to get marked down on your grammar and spelling.

  23. A teacher of mine once did a similar thing. The one kid that refused to write it was rewarded an A+. I think shes one of the most competent and open minded persons I met in my whole lifetime.
    This can be a very interesting opportunity to learn about authority and propaganda and I think its premature to simply downgrade it like that without more insight into that specific situation.

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