Holding Antisemites Accountable.

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Virginia Middle School Allows Students to Abstain from Holocaust Lesson

A school district in suburban Virginia is drawing backlash for announcing that middle school students could opt out of a talk by a Holocaust survivor on Monday.

Critics of the school connected the announcement with widespread reports of spiking antisemitism in K-12 schools following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. But the school denied those claims, later announcing that the opt-out was specifically intended to help Jewish students.

Fairfax County Public Schools, in a populous area outside Washington, DC with a number of Jewish institutions, reportedly told parents last week, “We understand that all students have different experiences. If you prefer to opt your child out from participating in this presentation, please email your child’s history teacher and they will be provided an alternate assignment.”

The wording confused some district parents, including Adele Scalia, mother of a seventh grader and daughter-in-law of deceased former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who shared portions of the message on social media. “What does that even mean?” Scalia wrote about the district’s wording. 

Scalia later made clear that she thought the school’s announcement enabled antisemitism. When another user said the message meant, “​​But if you hate Jews, then your kid doesn’t have to be there,” Scalia replied, “Exactly this.”

But in a Monday statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a district representative said it gave parents the opt-out option not in order to appease antisemites but due to feedback it has received in the past from Jewish students. 

District representatives also told JTA the opt-out had no connection to the Israel-Hamas war. 

“From past experience, some Jewish students at Cooper Middle School have expressed trauma about this visit from a Holocaust survivor,” the district representative wrote. “For that reason, school leadership makes every effort to partner with families of these students, who are 12 and 13 years old, to keep them informed. This opt-out allows the family the opportunity to make the best decision on behalf of their student.”

Virginia has a statewide mandate to teach the Holocaust to middle and high school students. But Holocaust educators have long debated whether it’s appropriate to teach the subject to middle-schoolers, with some believing — in an echo of Fairfax’s statement — that the material may be too traumatic for young students.

The Fairfax district has been home to a series of Israel-related controversies since October 7: Hundreds of students staged a pro-Palestinian walkout in October, and in November, a member of a Muslim student group was suspended for drawing a US flag with swastikas and the message “Free Palestine.” The district also reportedly suspended the student who had reported the drawing, sparking protest by Jewish groups. 

Conservative media and parent activist groups have also criticized school board members, including a Jewish one, for making or supporting pro-Palestinian statements.

In 2022, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened up an investigation into the district based on an antisemitism-related complaint by the right-wing pro-Israel group Zionist Organization of America. The district was accused of failing to act on several reported incidents of antisemitic harassment among students, including “Heil Hitler” salutes and Holocaust jokes. That investigation remains active, according to the department’s website.