December 14, 2018

Another mutation of the anti-Semitism virus – or just ignorance?

Now showing in New York schools: Videos transplanting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions sentiments into classes on ancient history! What? Yes, but not for long, thanks to Kenneth Zebrowski, a New York assemblyman who is calling on the state’s legislators to pay attention.

Study.com, a California startup that makes cartoon-type videos to enhance learning in and out of schools, chose to portray Jews of the first century as people who “got what they deserved” while Christians “took control of the empire that oppressed them.” Hmm. By the way, pardon the grammar. Jews of the time were “violent religious extremists” while Christian “martyrs’ murders advanced the cause.” Double hmm. Were the martyrs murdered or murderers? What contemporary cause does this sound like?

It would take a long time to go through what the company alleges to be a stock of more than 10,000 videos. But when its cartoons portray Jewish people in black hats and long coats, with earlocks and white beards, when they proclaim that the Torah is the Ten Commandments, and state that God gave Abraham the land of Canaan, which is “parts of Israel and Palestine,” you start to get the picture. Much of the company’s material on religion, social science and history is simple pablum, but subtle and not-so-subtle messages are being conveyed, as well. 

Not only for Judaism. When the title of a video is “Protestantism and Liberation Theology,” you know that Martin Luther and Archbishop Oscar Romero are choking in their graves. (John Calvin gets a mention with Max Weber — mispronounced — and capitalism.) When we’re told that Jesus preached a religion of personal salvation, we wonder what black hole swallowed up the scholarship of the last 60 years on early Christianity. When the narrator of a religion video pronounces Judaism “Ju-DAY-ism,” you know something has gone deeply awry.

The company’s founders are an Argentine computer scientist who twists English idioms to entertain his colleagues, and a young man with a bachelor’s degree in business administration who heads content development. The two young Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduates, now in Mountain View, allege to have “hundreds” of instructors, but the website seems to provide information on only a couple of dozen. Religion isn’t mentioned as one of its  six academic fields, but it’s a topic for a whole set of videos. As for history, the six instructors for whom they offer bios seem to have studied topics relevant to the Americas and ancient Greek philosophy.

And the New York public school system is subscribing to this company’s videos? Is it trying to surpass the record for bad educational ideas (previously held by a school district that was going to buy iPads for all)? Of course, it’s possible that officials thought they would give the teachers a break while the kids watch a few “harmless” cartoons. It’s like Shakespeare comics, no?

You don’t have to be Jewish to realize that this isn’t a good idea. Real educators know that in some areas of math and science, business and accounting, certain topics can best be learned by breaking them down into simple steps. We all were amazed when Khan Academy paved the way, and helped make that kind of learning more enjoyable and tailored to the pace of the student. (I don’t know what it’s doing now, so that’s not a plug.)

But human cultures, history and religion are a different story, so much more complex, not convertible into simple facts; so much more dangerous when handled poorly. To think of fourth- or fifth-graders viewing these videos and being imprinted with the stereotypes, anachronisms and outright misinformation is horrifying. We’ve been worried about Palestinian textbooks teaching hate. Now it’s coming home, not yet as hate but as ignorance and distorted perspective. Hate, however, has a fertile ground.

Study.com said it didn’t mean to “offend anyone” and will change “at least one” video (two were identified as anti-Semitic by the Jewish Federation of Rockland County). 

Actually, the videos have offended not only Jews but the intelligence of thousands of American teachers. But OK, we can only expect that they will do the usual brush-off, since money is at stake.

However, since more than money is at stake for us, we now have to investigate where else this is happening. Noxious weeds rarely sprout only one seed, nor do viruses make only one person sick. If you have children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren in public schools, give their school a call. Ask what educational “enhancements” it is using to make subjects more fun — for what classes, in what grades. What companies does it contract with? How can you as a concerned citizen see them? Especially if the subjects include history, literature, religion, “civilizations” or social science, you should insist on viewing or using these supplementary materials so you can see what kids are learning in this new tech era. Hopefully, you’ll have some fun and not see danger signs. But for the future of all of us, we need to find out.

A big thanks to the Jewish Federation of Rockland County and Assemblyman Zebrowski for this wake-up call.


Tamar Frankiel is a professor of Comparative Religion and provost at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.