Original images: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images; Flickr
On Monday, Oct. 30, the day before Halloween, I received a blast email from the principal of my youngest son’s high school that chilled me. It read, in part:
I am writing to let you know that we are aware of the potential for a student-led demonstration that may occur Wednesday during the school day. This walkout is not sponsored by [the high school or the county school’s administration]. The information we received from student leaders is that the student-organized demonstration is in support of the people of Palestine. ... Due to the sensitivity of this issue, the school will have adult supervision and extra security to ensure the demonstration is conducted in a peaceful way. Any non-peaceful acts, or noncompliance with staff direction, will be subject to the [county school system] Code of Behavior. [County school system] employees are expected to be viewpoint-neutral related to this protest. Once the protest is over, students will be expected to return to class.
I read this email after three weeks’ worth of reports regarding the beheading of Jewish babies, the tearing open of the wombs of Jewish mothers, the slayings of children in front of parents and parents in front of children, the setting of Jews on fire, the raping of Israeli women until their pelvic bones broke and blood ran between their legs, all of this gleefully filmed by the perpetrators and immediately uploaded in celebration to social media.
Perhaps even more pertinent to my reaction of outrage and dread, the email followed the weekslong gut-pummeling I’d endured while reading story after story about America’s supposed best and brightest—students and professors at vaunted Ivy League universities—leaping to defend or celebrate the barbarians of Hamas. I had watched kippa-wearing Jewish students cowering in the Cooper Union library in the face of a mob of Hamas supporters screaming Jew hatred at them through windows, held back only by the library’s locked doors, with the campus security either helpless or passive and the New York Police Department refusing to break up the mob. Thank God the 11 Jewish students were led away by a librarian or security guard through a back exit and tunnel. But a librarian had first offered that they should go hide in the library’s attic, an (I’m sure) unintentional echo of Anne Frank’s experience in Amsterdam.
Brain sizzling, I considered my youngest son. Sixteen years old and a junior in high school, a budding artist who spends hours each day on his computer creating digital characters and alien landscapes; vivacious, talkative, outgoing, with a charming, warm smile for everyone he meets; already half a head taller than me, wearing his frizzy hair in an enormous poof which my wife and I jokingly refer to as his “Jewfro.” He has struggled since childhood with aspects of autism and a severe sensitivity to stress, but he has made enormous strides since entering high school, cultivating a nurturing circle of friends, some of them Muslim.
Our county in northern Virginia is considered the state’s most diverse. Within the last 10 years, two mosques have opened down the road from us, about three miles from my son’s high school. On this past Fourth of July, I had seen in front of one of the mosques a cart decorated with red, white, and blue bunting, and a sign announcing “Muslims for America.” It reminded me of a black-and-white photograph of my grandmother as a young woman, recently arrived in Cleveland with her family from Lithuania after fleeing a pogrom across a frozen lake. In the photo, she wears a straw boater and clutches a little American flag, displaying it proudly. Seeing that cart in front of the mosque touched my heart. I wanted to think the best of the people who worshiped there, the same people with whom I shared my local coffee shop, who attended school alongside my son.
Yet I knew the number of Jewish students at my son’s school to be fewer than a dozen, outnumbered by Muslim students by a ratio of at least 50 to 1. And I had watched video after video of angry crowds on college campuses and New York City streets chanting for Israel’s destruction. One of those mobs, burning an Israeli flag and getting into fisticuffs with Jewish students, marched on a New Orleans street that bisects the campus of Tulane University and borders my alma mater, Loyola University. This spring, I published a novel I had written a dozen years earlier, The End of Daze, that featured an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish mob of Tulane students nearly succeeding in immolating an Israeli consul when he tried giving a talk. What I had intended as satirical fiction had turned horrifyingly real.
Reading about the incident at Cooper Union had pushed me to seriously consider buying a gun. For the first time as a born American, I felt in my gut I could no longer trust the police to protect me and my family should the worst come. Yet I’d thought I’d still had time to prepare, to do my research, to train myself in marksmanship and gun safety, to get it right. But now the wave of anti-Jewish fervor was outracing me, about to envelop my own space, the school my youngest son attended, barely half a mile away from our house. Every cell in my body and brain was screaming: fight or flight.
I immediately wrote the following email to my son’s principal.
Dear Principal A.,
I am the father of a current junior, [name withheld]. I note with great concern your announcement that this Wednesday, students will be allowed to walk out of classes in support of Hamas. ...
I fervently hope you realize that the slogan “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” is NOT a call for a peaceful two state solution but instead a call to murder or, at best, drive out every single Jew from the entirety of what was once the British Mandate—i.e., all of Israel proper, not just the West Bank. This is a call to genocide, a reflection of the Hamas charter that calls for the extermination of every single Jew on Earth, including your student, [name redacted]. I impress upon you to consider how you would handle any students who support the KKK or Aryan Nations and who advocate on school grounds for the murder or ethnic cleansing of all black Americans. Would such hypothetical students be expelled from your school? If the answer is “yes,” I demand that the same standard be applied to any students who chant or display the genocidal slogan quoted above. ...
I tried to find an email address for the school system’s superintendent but had to go through an online portal to send her a message. Less than an hour later, I received a reply from one of her assistants, written in the same cold, mechanical bureaucratese I have learned to write for my own job, asserting that proper procedures would be followed and the safety of all students assured.
The header on the email from the official portal stated, The current status for this request is: Closed. More than the impersonal bureaucratese of the response itself, this digital slamming of a door in my face made me feel like I was in a Kafka novel, a nameless man trapped in a maze of inscrutable bureaucratic malevolence. I wrote back to the person hiding beyond the portal:
Thank you for your response. You state that “any non-peaceful acts or noncompliance with staff direction, will be subject to the [county school system] Code of Behavior.” Please answer this question for me. Are calls for the genocide of Jews and/or Israelis considered “non-peaceful acts”? For that is what the slogan “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” means—making the entirety of the former British Mandate, including all of Israel and the West Bank, free of Jews ... by any means necessary. In the legal world, as I am sure you are aware, this is considered incitement to violence, which goes beyond protected speech, certainly speech by minors on the grounds of a government school during scheduled class times.
Should I discover that this slogan or other comparable genocidal slogans are being either spoken or displayed on the grounds of my son’s school, I will investigate my legal options, for this will have constituted the official allowance by Principal A. and [county school system] leadership for the creation of a hostile working environment for my Jewish son, and thus a violation of my son’s civil rights as a student of a public school.
I received no reply to this second email, robotic or otherwise.
That evening I shared with my son the original email from Principal A. and my reply. His response was a drawn-out explicative that rhymes with “duck.” Initially, he said there was no way he wanted to go to school on Wednesday, the day of the scheduled protest. My wife and I talked it over. I felt he shouldn’t cower and stay home from school, because his missing school due to fear would constitute a tiny victory for the Hamas terrorists. One of their major goals is to make Jews afraid for their lives and safety. But I also said I wouldn’t force him to go in on Wednesday if he didn’t want to.
My son, however, after a little independent reflection, decided he would go to school after all. Furthermore, he intended to wear blue and white clothing, the colors of Israel’s flag. Anger and defiance had pushed aside his fear; he told my wife he meant to bring a sign to school on Wednesday to counterprotest. She strongly suggested that he speak with his school counselor the next day, Tuesday, to share his concerns and to get feedback on whether or not counterprotesting would be a safe thing for him to do.
Early Tuesday morning I received a phone call from Principal A. in response to my email of the day before. In contrast to the coldly mechanical response I had gotten from the school administration, which might as well have been written by ChatGPT, I could tell I had a real person on the other end of the line—I could hear the somewhat embarrassed caution in his voice as he introduced himself to an obviously very angry, very upset parent. He sounded genuinely regretful that circumstances had led to this conversation.
He began by saying he fully understood my concerns but allowing the Wednesday protest to take place was not his decision; his hands were tied by directives issued by school system attorneys. He explained that for the past several years, based on U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment rulings, students had been permitted to organize walkouts on school property during scheduled class times, and principals were not allowed to choose which walkout causes are approved and which are disallowed.
I repeated my concerns about the creation of a hostile educational environment for my vulnerable son, one of only a tiny handful of Jewish students on his campus. He tried to reassure me that he had done what he could to minimize the planned demonstration’s disruptive impact. He had met with three student leaders of the event, getting them to shorten the event’s allotted length. He’d told them they could not take their protest outdoors, where it might spill over into the highway in front of the school, but would have to limit it to an inside venue. He’d impressed upon the leaders that they must avoid hate speech; however, he could make no assurances that this promise would be adhered to by their followers. If hate speech or calls for violence did occur, he would immediately shut it down. Yet he admitted that, prior to reading my email, he had been unaware that the common Palestinian slogan, “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” is a call for the genocide or ethnic cleansing of Jewish Israelis from Israel and the West Bank.
I felt badly for him. He struck me as a decent and well-meaning man placed in an untenable situation by his superiors. I thanked him for his honesty. He ended our conversation by telling me, sotto voce, that he agreed with everything I had said. After having witnessed pro-Palestinian student walkouts at other county high schools, he both dreaded and fully expected his own students would step over the red lines he had laid down.
My son followed his mother’s suggestion and met with his school counselor to talk about what might happen the following day. When he showed her the email I had sent to Principal A., she seemed nonplussed, even a bit cold. She displayed no sensitivity to his vulnerability as a Jewish student at a school where Muslim students vastly outnumber their Jewish peers and were planning a campus event where the world’s only Jewish state would be anathematized. He asked her opinion on whether he should counterprotest. She answered him by saying that school staff were required to be politically neutral and he was free to exercise his First Amendment rights. Although pleased that she supported his rights, he was very unhappy, even angry, with her tone and general dismissiveness. The previous day I had joked with my wife about the possibility of the school counselor telling my son that Jews were part of the white oppressor class and could never be victims vis-a-vis people of color. She didn’t say this out loud, but based on what I heard, she was likely thinking it, allowing her dogma to outweigh her professional responsibility to a child with a registered emotional disability.
Earlier that week, I’d forwarded my initial correspondence to my rabbi. He put me in touch with a congregant who worked on reducing incidents of antisemitism in K-12 schools. She suggested I contact the Brandeis Center and the legal arm of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and she highly recommended that I file a civil rights complaint with the Virginia Attorney General’s Civil Rights Office on my son’s behalf. She also suggested that I ask my son if he would be willing to join the walkout on Wednesday and film the event with his phone.
I had to give that last suggestion some hard thought. My initial reaction was that I couldn’t ask my son to put himself in that sort of a position. However, once I heard him talking about making a one-boy counterprotest, a 180-degree turnaround from his initial fright, I suggested to him that he would actually do a lot more good if he were to observe the goings-on and unobtrusively film the event; that way, if the students did cross the line Principal A. had laid down against hate speech and calls for violence, we would have proof vital for the success of any legal proceedings. I also said I would not push him into doing this and that if he didn’t want to, I would in no way think any less of him; he would have to live with his fellow students for another year and a half. However, he quickly warmed to the idea, agreeing it was a better course of action than a counterprotest. He even seemed gleeful and excited that he would get to act as a “spy.”
I told him he was darned brave. I shook his hand. I sensed I was shaking the hand of a man—a peer, not the little boy he sometimes remained in my mind’s eye.
Wednesday morning at about 11 a.m., I received a call from Principal A. He said there had been an incident at the protest involving my son, that my son was not harmed but that I needed to collect him from the principal’s office and take him home because he was badly shaken up. He told me my son had gotten into an altercation with school staff at the protest, had tried absconding from the campus, and had to be tackled in the grass by a police officer.
Driving the half-mile to the school campus, I wasn’t panicky; I just felt numb, but with a rising anger simmering beneath the numbness. It had happened. A tendril of Hamas’ barbarity and the madness of the Middle East had reached all the way to a Virginia exurb to ensnare my son.
I found my son waiting in a conference room outside the principal’s office along with Principal A. and one of his assistant principals. Principal A.’s first comment to me was odd: He said a positive outcome of the morning’s events was that he now knew who my son was; he’d walked past him at the protest and wondered about the boy recording everything. This struck me as rather cavalier on his part; having been amply warned about the vulnerability of an isolated Jewish student, why hadn’t he sought my son out prior to the event or at least had one of his assistants do so? Another jarring oddity for me was the pair’s outlook on the morning’s events; although they voiced sympathy for what my son had gone through, they both acted as though I should be grateful they weren’t punishing him for having cursed at and struggled with the administrators who had restrained him.
I asked my son to tell the story from his viewpoint. The assistant principal interjected partway through that a corner of the auditorium stage had been set aside for expression of opposing opinions; that seemed like very weak sauce, and my son retorted that no one had known about it and so no one had availed themselves of it. Principal A. said he had not yet decided whether and how to discipline the 700 students who had disobeyed his instructions by exiting the building. He frowned on that possibility, saying it would be far too disruptive to discipline so many; alternatively, he was considering disciplining the protest leaders only. He defended himself and his school by stating that similar protests had occurred the past week at high schools across the county. He mentioned that his School Board and administration had asked for feedback on these student walkouts and their levels of disruption. I implored him to find the personal and professional courage to push back against the county’s ridiculous, corrosive, and dangerous policy of allowing laissez-faire student protests, particularly on such divisive issues as the conflict between Israel and Palestinians that threatened to pit students against one another and introduce heightened religious and ethnic animosities into the schools. He passed a note to me across the table with a single word on it: Tinker, the name of a Supreme Court case upon which the School Board and its lawyers based their policy. He said he would do what he could. We shook hands.
On the brief drive home, my son sounded strong and determined. I told him he had done nothing wrong and that, given all the circumstances, he had acted as best he could. He said he would immediately upload the digital video he had recorded to a private YouTube channel so that I could watch and share it.
He’d filmed the entirety of the event, from when several hundred students gathered in the auditorium (Principal A. had told me the number was 700, and another school employee I know told me she’d heard it estimated at 900, but from what I could see in my son’s video, it didn’t look like much more than 200 kids) to when the rule-breaking outside excursion began breaking up and my son was being restrained by school security and administrators. My initial intention in watching was to see whether any calls for violence, genocide, and ethnic cleansing, either coded or open, had been made. I found that, perhaps due to guidance provided by Principal A., chants of “Free Palestine! Palestine will be free!” took the place of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” The former can have the exact same meaning as the latter, of course, determined by whether the speaker means a Palestine limited to the West Bank and Gaza or a Palestine that encompasses the entirety of the former British Mandate minus Jordan. But there is more than enough wiggle room there for lawyers to quibble over whether the students had actually incited violence or not.
What the three speakers at the rally, the leaders of the demonstration, did do, however, was spread modern-day versions of blood libels against the Jews. They shouted that Israel was conducting a genocide against the Palestinian people and had been doing so for 75 years (an odd sort of genocide, given that the Palestinian population in the territories has grown more than fivefold since their nakba in 1948), that Israel imposed apartheid in 1948, that Israel bombed a children’s hospital in Gaza in recent weeks (a piece of thoroughly debunked propaganda), and quoted inflated Gazan civilian death tolls sourced from the Gaza Ministry of Health, an arm of Hamas.
Yet on later reflection, what I was really watching was a bunch of teenagers cosplaying at being resistance fighters and revolutionaries, their kaffiyehs and Palestinian flags leftovers from some Halloween party the night before. The three organizers, two girls and a boy, were surely living the dream of virtually every teen competing for followers on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube—leading an auditorium filled with hundreds of their peers in a passionate call-and-response, their every dramatic assertion answered by cheers and applause.
Absent the specifics, the event could have been a student-led pep rally for a school football team on the cusp of a championship game. Instead, despite a brief, pro forma expression of regret for the loss of life on Oct. 7, it was a pep rally for 1,500 blood-crazed assailants who had invaded bucolic farming communities and a music festival organized around the theme of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and then carried out a pogrom worthy of Cossacks.
My son provided spontaneous commentary as he was filming, brief outbursts forced out by the emotions churning inside him. After all, he was equally as young and unformed as his three peers on stage (with one of whom he shares a first period class), just as immersed in daily hours of social media, just as hungry for acceptance and validation and lionization as they. Yet he was on the opposite side of this Alice in Hamas-land looking glass—mouse-size instead of 20 feet tall; threatened instead of secure; furtive instead of openly triumphant; alone against nearly a quarter of the school, his feelings dismissed instead of resoundingly cheered.
I listened to him quietly mutter with shock and disbelief as the crowd entered the auditorium, “There’s so many people ... so many ... even people I know ... Look how many fricking people are here.” I heard the hurt in his voice. “God, I know some of those people, I recognize them ...” As the three student leaders recited their speeches, my son can be heard to say in a low voice, “Boo!” or “No!” At the end of the third speech, he was overcome with too much pent-up emotion and yelled at the stage, “Hamas is putting their rockets in the schools!”
Then the male leader announced that the protest would be exiting the building and making a procession around the school, in direct violation of the rules Principal A. had set down. Notably, neither Principal A. nor any other school official mounted the stage to warn the gathered students this was not allowed. The pumped-up crowd began meandering out of the auditorium, chatting excitedly. My son climbed onto the stage for a better vantage point. Other students began to notice him filming. Many of them smiled up at him and wagged their index fingers and pinkies, assuming he was in favor of the protest and would be uploading it.
Other students weren’t so sure of his motives. Some hollered up at him, “Why are you filming? Are you for Palestine?” Other students passing close to him shouted “Palestine! Palestine!” One asks a question that can’t be made out on the video, and my son answered—incredibly, given the circumstances—“I’m Jewish.” Other kids exclaim excitedly, “Jewish! Jewish!” or “Jew!” followed by laughter and whoops. One kid dressed in grunge clothes drew close and said, waving his index finger, “We’re not going to hit you, bro, it’s fine!” A couple of other kids tried to interject some multicultural mellowness, saying into my son’s camera, “We love the Jews! We love all races!” Someone out of camera range interjected, “We despise them!” The friendlier kids replied, “No, don’t say that!”
In the hallway outside the auditorium, uniformed security guards directed the crowd to the exit doors from the school; one can be heard to say, “Baby, you gotta go this way, outside.” My son reacted with outraged disbelief as he watched the rules being massively violated, encouraged and directed by school security and assistant principals. He went immediately to a woman security guard and said, “Outside? They said they weren’t allowed to bring this outside!” Another adult voice in the background can be heard saying to a group of students, “Ten minutes, that’s what you’ve got.” The security guard answered my son, “That’s not up to me, hon. That’s up to your group organizers, OK?” My son, completely exasperated now, says more to himself than to the guard, “Fuck them!”
Children, and I consider teenagers children, instinctually demand fairness, and are outraged when fairness is denied. Being on the autism spectrum, my son might even be more disturbed by perceived violations of fairness than other children are. He got more and more worked up as he approached the exit doors. “They said they wouldn’t take this outside ... liars! They lied, Dad!” he said to me, knowing I would eventually listen. “They fucking lied!”
The dim indoor footage gave way to the too-bright sun of a cloudless fall morning. Within the outside amphitheater, kids happily brandished their Palestinian flags. A girl student with a battery-operated megaphone began leading the crowd in a call-and-response shout of “Palestine will be free!” and “Palestine kids!” and “We will—say it—Palestine will be free!” My son, alone amid the chanting throng, screamed at the top of his voice, on the edge of incoherence, “Palestine is—Hamas wants to eradicate the Jews!” The crowd erupted into raucous cheering. It is unclear to me whether they were cheering themselves or cheering for the awful point of undeniable truth screamed by my son.
The male student leader, also with a megaphone, then announced it was time to exit the amphitheater and return to class. The crowd began slowly heading back inside, students in no hurry to resume a normal school day. My son, likely seeing his opportunity for counterprotest slipping away, burning now with a need to express himself, approached the female protest leader who had been leading the call-and-response chants and in a surprising soft and polite tone asked, “May I borrow that?” He meant her megaphone; the gesture a sign, perhaps, of him being both 16 years old and on the spectrum, still requesting and expecting a show of fairness. Of course, she curtly told him no.
A moment later, despite the students having been told to go back inside, the girl with the megaphone resumed the same sets of chants she’d led earlier, then paused to thank the students for having come out in support. This was the moment when my son finally lost any shred of composure. He began screaming, “Boo! Boo! Boo! Boo!” There was a break in the footage, perhaps a few seconds. It picked up with my son walking on the grass as the crowd parts before him, screaming in all directions, “Hamas wants to eradicate the Jews from Israel! Hamas wants to eradicate the Jews from Israel! Hamas—Hamas—Hamas wants to eradicate the Jews!”
I could hear him gasping for breath between screams. He sounded as though he’d just run a half-marathon. He did not get in any fellow student’s face with these wounded cries as they walked away from him. An administrator approached him, saying, “You need to walk out this way,” pointing away from the doors through which the tail end of the crowd was streaming.
My son screamed “No! You’re violating my rights! Fuck you!”
The administrator, perhaps accompanied by another administrator or a security guard—it’s unclear from the video—moved in to restrain him. “Bud, you need to walk out this way. Move this way.”
At that point, the video ended.
What happened next was that my son elbowed and fought his way out of the administrators’ constraint. I am reasonably sure the school staff members witnessed what they considered a student emotionally out of control and tried to isolate him so he could calm down. But my son felt, both in the heat of that moment and in his thoughts afterward, he was being selectively silenced, the only kid to suffer censorship, a lone Jew in the midst of a crowd who had enthusiastically cheered slanders and blood libels against his people, a crowd that had been allowed and encouraged to break the stated rules.
He ran toward the exit from the school grounds, toward home, half a mile away. A county police officer, brought in for extra security, spotted him and ran after him. The officer tackled him to the grass before he could reach the road. Then he was brought to the principal’s office, and Principal A. had phoned me.
“Oh, wow ...” I said, stunned and heartsick at having watched my youngest son prodded into an emotional meltdown. He and I share a fondness for horror films. What I thought of then was a scene from Dawn of the Dead—a member of a motorcycle gang removes a zombie from his path by hitting the creature in the sternum with a sledgehammer. The sound effects technician had done an unforgettable job with the hollow thump! I told myself, I’ve just been hit in the sternum with a sledgehammer.
I went into a state of hyperfocused activity. I shared my son’s video with anyone I knew who might care and might be able to make some sort of a difference. I compiled a dossier of everything that had happened and all communications. I updated the complaint I’d already made with the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. I made plans to reach out to the Brandeis Center’s legal arm. I checked back with the attorney from the Zionist Organization of America and provided all the fresh, jagged details of my son’s ordeal. I wanted nothing more than to nail the school administration’s asses to the wall, feeling only a large financial judgment against the system could convince them to alter the policies that had hurt my child.
My son, emotionally drained, had taken a nap. He awoke hollering incoherently. Pale as a sheet of copy paper, he said he couldn’t get memories of his screaming that morning out of his head. I tried to distract him, telling him I’d watch any silly animes with him he wanted. Only getting on the phone with a friend pulled him out of his quivering funk.
That night, sitting in the passenger seat of my wife’s car, an overdose of adrenaline caused my arms and hands to shake. I told my wife in a strangely even, calm voice, “My whole body wants me to punch someone.” I realized I was going through my own version of post-traumatic stress.
Late the following morning, Thursday, I received a call from the ZOA lawyer. My son had stayed home from school, having suffered more incidents of invasive, persistent thoughts the night before. The lawyer regretfully explained that, in her opinion, I didn’t have a legal case. She did not see evidence on the video of viewpoint discrimination by the school, only administrators trying to contain a distraught child; proving harm would be tenuous.
She did offer, however, to send a strongly worded letter to the superintendent, the principal, and the school board requesting that they issue a statement abhorring the Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel, similar to the statement they had published immediately following the police-involved death of George Floyd in 2020; that they correct falsehoods and calumnies regarding Israel that had been declared by protesting students; and that the school system adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
I expressed a bitter skepticism that such requests would ever result in anything more than a pro forma acknowledgment of receipt. I also said I thought her opinion of the viability of a legal case, however right it might be, sucked. I thanked her for her offer to write a letter for me. I said I would take whatever aid I could get; if I could not bring a case against the school system in a court of law, I would have to try my best to bring a case against them in the court of public opinion.
Unbeknownst to me, my son had been listening in on this conversation from his room downstairs. As soon as I got off the phone, he ascended to the dining room where I was working. Glaring at me with eyes made puffy by tears, he accused me in a whining caterwauling that transformed him from a nearly 6-foot-tall young man, my heroic offspring, into a wounded little boy. “Oh, Dad, how could you? You’ve betrayed me! Used me! You’ve used me for your own political agenda!”
Trying my best to keep my voice level and without emotion, I asked him to explain this turnabout. Hadn’t I been doing what he’d wanted? Fighting to protect him? Doing all I could to try to ensure the sort of thing that had happened to him on Wednesday wouldn’t happen again, to him or other vulnerable kids?
He said no, no, no—“I don’t want that! I don’t want you using me! The rally was fine, fine! There was nothing wrong with it until I got involved! I just want it all to go away!”
He retreated to his room.
I sat back down at the dining room table and tried to think. I’m an adult, I told myself. I can roll with this. My kid had turned on a dime. But kids did that sort of thing, especially in the wake of the kind of trauma he’d suffered. I had to be the parent. The grown-up. I went down to his room and sat on the side of his bed and told him that his emotional well-being was more important to me than any agenda. I promised him that, until he figured things out for himself, I wouldn’t pursue this any further.
He rolled over and ignored me. Then he mumbled through the covers that he was confused. He said he might not want to ever return to his high school. I said if things came to that, his mom and I could transfer him to a different school, or he could drop out and get a G.E.D. and start his post-public school training early.
I returned to my worktable and tried to decide what to do next. Should I alert the folks I’d begun working with that I was putting everything on pause, or should I do nothing and wait for my son’s head to clear—assuming it would? My phone vibrated. My wife had sent me a text message. How are things going? My hands were shaking as I typed my response.
As I furiously typed away, more tsuris arose in my thoughts. My oldest son, who had started a chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America at the same high school, refused to hear a word I had to say about Israel, abruptly leaving the dinner table whenever the subject arose. My middle son was hardly any more receptive, pinging me with the moral equivalencies he’d picked up from Instagram posts and then ignoring the long responses I sent in return. Now my youngest son had accused me of betraying him and using him.
I can’t have my kid hate me, I hammered out on my phone. A remote part of me wondered whether the force of my typing would push my index finger through my phone’s screen. A sob thrust itself up through my chest. Three more followed before I rushed out of the house, desperate that my son not hear me.
In the midst of my earlier flurry of emailing and dossier compiling, I had Walter Mitty-ed myself as a bush league Peter Bergson, who’d barnstormed the U.S. during World War II, valiantly struggling to raise awareness of the Holocaust. Yet now, walking as quickly as I could through my neighborhood, trying to dispel the destructive, negative energy I had accumulated, I could only think of a different Walter—Walter Benjamin, who had fled Germany to France in 1933 when Hitler assumed power and subsequently attempted to flee France in 1940 following the capitulation of the French Army, climbing over the Pyrenees Mountains only to be denied entry at the Spanish border. He committed suicide by overdosing on morphine. Would my family have to run like Benjamin had? If I got pushed to the point of abandoning America and seeking refuge in Israel, would any of my children agree to accompany me, or would they deny the darkening reality the way my youngest son had just denied the awfulness of his own experience?
I felt alone, terribly alone.
My son returned to school on Friday, but he had not yet recovered his equilibrium. In his last class, chemistry, the combined stress of his Wednesday ordeal and his having fallen behind due to missing two days of instruction forced him to leave the classroom and take refuge in a counselor’s office, where he sat mutely until his bus took him home. That evening, when I picked him up from his beloved art class, he wordlessly screamed at me without provocation upon entering the car, refusing to tell me what was upsetting him, going mute again for the whole drive home. His mother had to coax him out of the car. He ate dinner by himself in his room.
By Sunday morning he was seeming more like himself. He pulled me aside and said he had thought some more and decided I could use his video. But he asked that I not include him in any more conversations about the situation. He didn’t want to spend any time around our rabbi; he didn’t want to hear anything about Israel.
Monday evening, he forwarded to me a photograph another kid at school had taken of him and posted to social media, purposefully conflating him with another student having a similar name who had supposedly punched a teacher and shouted that he wanted to kill Jews. A friend of my son’s had come across this and sent it to him as a warning. My son believed that participants in the Wednesday protest were trying to retaliate against him by “framing” him, as he put it. The scenario didn’t make sense to me—why would anyone who wanted to smear my son, one of the only Jewish students in the school, attempt to do so by intimating that my son would want to kill Jews? But less and less makes any sense to me these days.
Were this any other time, less vertiginous, less doom-laden—more normal—I would consider my county school system’s laissez-faire policy toward allowing student-led protests on school grounds during scheduled class times to be the scandal of primary importance. Their policies rest on a maximalist interpretation of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). This Supreme Court case centered on a public high school’s decision to suspend five students who wore black arm bands to school to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A 7-2 majority of the court ruled that the wearing of such arm bands was constitutionally protected symbolic speech and that public school administrators could not ban such speech merely on the basis of finding it noxious. However, student speech on school grounds could be limited in carefully restricted circumstances, such as disallowing conduct that would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school” or conduct of a type that would “reasonably have led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities”.
School authorities were alerted three times prior to the protest at my son’s school that a student would be particularly vulnerable, and that the protest would create a hostile educational environment—my communications with Principal A., my emails to the superintendent’s office, and my son’s meeting with a school counselor. Given the passions—murderous passions on one side—surrounding the issue at hand and the cliquishness and immaturity of high school students, anyone possessed of normal intelligence could have predicted that permitting an event like Wednesday’s protest to proceed would lead to inflaming interreligious and interethnic animosities. Furthermore, it is indisputable that school discipline broke down at the event, with administrators perversely directing the violation of their own previously stated rules.
It also seems worth noting that the five years prior to the current superintendent’s installation in 2022 had witnessed only one cluster of student-led protests, those being demonstrations favoring gun control in the wake of a school shooting in Florida in 2018. Since her ascension, three clusters of student-led protests have occurred on campuses across the county, all supporting policies favored by progressives or against policies disfavored by them. This implies a recent shift in school administration policy, which I believe is responsible for what happened and what continues to happen to my son.
But these protests—and the schools that permit them—are a somewhat minor symptom of the disruptive changes roiling our communities and transforming the United States into something unrecognizable. Not since the days of the big Ku Klux Klan rallies in the 1920s has this country witnessed mass demonstrations in favor of perpetrators of terror and mayhem. Yet on Nov. 4, my 59th birthday, the heart of our nation’s capital saw tens of thousands of people marching for a ceasefire in Gaza that would benefit only Hamas. The participants, many of whom were bused in from around the country by organizations such as A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Palestinian Youth Movement, and Party for Socialism and Liberation, accused both Israel and the U.S. of committing genocide. The “mostly peaceful” protesters imitated their counterparts during the summer of George Floyd, defacing public monuments, covering the outside gate of the White House with red-paint handprints, vandalizing police cars and the McPherson Square Metro Station, and spray-painting graffiti messages on buildings adjacent to the Israeli Embassy, including “Glory 2 the Martyrs,” “Death to Israel,” and “Fuck Israel.” Unlike at my son’s school, the genocidal chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” was repeated gleefully and repeatedly, voiced by uncountable thousands. The more athletic among the attendees climbed up gates protecting the White House and attempted to enter the grounds, hurling garbage and verbal abuse at the Secret Service agents guarding the interior. The agents stood by and did nothing. Police made only a single arrest, for property destruction.
Children aren’t the only ones who instinctively demand fairness. Why are pro-Hamas mobs allowed to verbally harass and physically menace Jews, call for the genocide or ethnic cleansing of Israelis and Jews, publicly celebrate gang rape and baby murder as “resistance,” and vandalize public monuments and public and private property alike, all with impunity? I’ve seen the message Hate Has No Home Here repeated hundreds of times, on murals inside schools, on websites of every sort, on lawn signs displayed in front of homes in communities large and small. Yet hate does have a home here. In our nation’s capital. In the streets of our cities. On the campuses of our Ivy League universities. At my son’s high school. Our country has let hatred take root—so long as it is hatred of Jews.
American Jews are living through strange times. In 2017—only six years ago, though it feels like much more—I was taking a class in homeland security studies, where I gave a presentation on what patriotism means to me. The presentation centered on my grandfather’s experience as the son of Jewish immigrants in Charleston, West Virginia. He and his brother started with nothing but built a little business empire for themselves, beginning with a scrap yard that prospered greatly during the Second World War and then branching out into entertainment management, guiding the touring companies of Broadway plays and musicals during their runs in the Southern states. They’d managed shows from South Pacific all the way through Fiddler on the Roof. My grandfather became close friends with many of the stars of the golden age of American musicals, including Florence Henderson and Carol Channing. One of my dearest possessions is a photograph of my grandfather posing with Ms. Channing in her Hello, Dolly! costume. I told my classmates and professors how uniquely open and welcoming a country America was, how it, unlike most European nations, allowed the sons of poor immigrants to become involved in the very heart of one of the nation’s few indigenous art forms of world impact. That photograph of my Grandpa Frank with Carol Channing, the former junk man with his arm around one of the leading stars of Broadway, was one of the wellsprings of my abundant patriotism. I related my story with tears in my eyes—tears of pride and gratitude.
I have tears in my eyes again, but for a much different and sadder reason. We American Jews stared through windows that were once so clear, that once allowed in abundant light and warmth, and we thought the light and warmth would never fade. Now those windows look across a changed landscape. We struggle to narrow our focus to only those dwindling portions of glass that remain as sparkling clear as the windows of our golden age as Jews in America. We tilt our faces, squinting desperately, doing all we can to shut out what we don’t wish to see. But we cannot unsee the black, twisting form of the funnel cloud on the horizon, that swift-moving tornado whose path no one can predict.
Andrew Fox is the author of, among other titles, Fat White Vampire Blues.