Late last month the Virginia Senate passed House Bill 1606, formally adopting the non-legally binding definition of antisemitism. With antisemitic incidents reaching a 10-year high across the U.S. in 2021 and cases of antisemitic harassment and vandalism trending upward in Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin signed an Executive Order establishing the Commission to Combat Antisemitism on his first day in office.
The Commission determined that Virginia did not have as many antisemitic incidents as neighboring states, but the Commonwealth had room for improvement. Reported antisemitic incidents across Virginia grew from 292 in 2020 to 411 in 2021, a 71 percent increase. Additionally, without a clear definition for antisemitism, steps to combat such hate are fragmented at best. With mostly bipartisan support–eight Democrats in the Senate and 18 Democrats in the House abstained–House Bill 1606 passed, adopting the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism.
Several organizations, including United Against Antisemitism, worked to educate elected officials about the significance of this bill.
"We focused on a grassroots campaign, writing hundreds of letters to our legislators explaining what the IHRA bill is and why the definition is such an important component to fighting antisemitism. If we can't define it properly, we can't combat it," says Rebecca Schgallis, former Thomas Jefferson High School Humanities Department chair and co-founder of UAA.
The passage of House Bill 1606 comes on the heels of The Zionist Organization of America filing a complaint against Fairfax County Public Schools for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by "failing to respond appropriately and effectively to a hostile antisemitic environment," according the the letter signed by ZOA’s National president and director.
The ZOA alleges that FCPS has a history of ignoring patterns of harassment and discrimination against Jewish students and staff. Last fall, the Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into the Title VI complaint. Since then, seven or eight additional complaints of antisemitism have been reported to FCPS.
The ZOA complaint to the OCR detailed examples of the antisemitic harassment that Jewish students are subjected to across FCPS. One parent whose children previously attended Irving Middle School and West Springfield High School alleged that "students threw coins at these Jewish children, made jokes about money, and used the vile phrase "Jew them down" – all reflecting antisemitic stereotypes about Jews being greedy and materialistic."
The complaint further mentions that "students gave these Jewish children the "Heil Hitler" salute in school hallways and class; students made jokes in the presence of Jewish children about the Holocaust; and one Jewish child went to the school bathroom and when the child returned to her desk she to found a swastika drawn on her paper".
In other schools, antisemitic reports include students impersonating Hitler, singing Happy Birthday to Hitler, and drawing graffiti on a wall stating 'Jews will not replace us,' a slogan associated with white supremacist groups that staged a protest in Charlottesville, in August 2017.
Within the past week, graffiti was found inside a Loudoun County Middle School that read "die, Jews, die."
"When school administrators have been made aware of these incidents, parents report that the school district took no actions or very little action to address these issues," said Schgallis. As Schgallis and other Jewish advocates work to hold FCPS accountable, she hopes that adopting
a clear definition of antisemitism as 30 other states have done, the U.S. State Department, and 39 countries worldwide will effect change across the Commonwealth on a broader scale.
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