Students Playing “Beat the Jew” Lessons in tolerance

by | Jun 14, 2010 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Tolerance

Most Disturbing Teen Activity: “Beat the Jew” Game

La Quinta High School students have been in the news lately and now face disciplinary and possibly legal action. The problem: High school students participating in a game called “Beat the Jew.”   The game: Students  playing the role of Nazis who blindfold and then drop off other students playing Jews who must then find their way back to the campus. “The objective is for the Jew is to run down Highway 111 to a specified checkpoint before the Nazis can catch up to him, tackle him down and capture him.”

The game was promoted first on online and attracted about 40 students to gather in the school parking lot after hours. Community reaction: Outrage (and rightly so). And when you understand the demographics of the community, you’ll recognize why this so-called “game” went up to Code Red on the decimel-disturbing level.

La Quinta is a Southern California community  close to my hometown of Palm Springs. Over 90 holocaust survivors live in this area–more than any other area in the United States reports say.

The La Quinta High School history department who taught these students is shocked as well. During the year teachers did extensive units on tolerance, had students read powerful novels and first-person accounts on the holocaust, and invited several of those holocaust survivors to speak to students about the horror they endured.

So what gives? Three things.

First, I think we have may to to rethink our tolerance lessons if our goal is to change prejudice and sensitize students to differences as well as humanity.

Second, we must recognize that this “Beat the Jew” game is not an isolated incident. We are seeing a disturbing increase in racism amongst kids.

[My past blogs may be helpful: “Sad Lessons from Kick the Ginger Day: It’s time to boost youth tolerance.” “Seven Ways to Boost Tolerance in Students.”]

Third, let’s listen to our kids and get their perspective on what works. By coincidence that ‘s what I was doing this week in a separate incident about student intolerance.

Last Monday I was working with an at-risk middle school in Southern California that is close to the border. Eight hundred kids, many just arriving from war-torn countries, many with PTSD, and many speak only their native tongue. I was called in to by the district as a consultant because racism is so embedded at the campus (amongst Mexican, Iraqi, Arab, African-American, and white students) that physical safety is now a top concern.

I spent hours interviewing students about the problem. When I work in an at-risk site I always begin the process by first walking the campus looking for “hot spot” zones and then asking the principal to arrange for groups of students to just talk with me without other staff present. The student focus groups are about 8-15 in size and must represent different groups of kids (I want band kids, prom queens, outsiders, insiders, student council, gifted, special ed kids, nerds, geeks, popular, skaters, whatever.. just kids). Students comments always give me insight and usually are spot on as the school problems as well as solutions. The kids never fail me. This time kids gave me clues about how we should be teaching tolerance.

An eleven-year old girl told me: “I don’t feel safe. I can’t think. Everyone hates each other here. Why aren’t the parents teaching their kids to be more tolerant so maybe we’d have a chance.”

A seventh grade girl said: “Thank you for listening. Someone has got to listen to the kids. We could tell them how much we’re hurting. They have to listen more.”

Then students began offering solutions to the problem.

A sixth grade boy said: “You know,” he said, “if the kids of different races could just do more with each other I bet they’d learn to appreciate each other.”

“What kinds of things? I asked.

“The teachers could have us do simple little teambuilding activities with kids of different races. And why do we always have to sit with the same kids at lunch? If we don’t do things with other kids we’ll never get to know the other kids. It would help us learn maybe that we’re really all the same.”

That twelve year old confirmed the research in Gordon Allport’s fascinating read and hallmark study, The Nature of Prejudice about how to reduce prejudice and boost tolerance.

Lessons alone don’t build tolerance. Kids need real and meaningful experiences to build empathy. The Seeds of Peace program is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

It’s clear we must rethink our approaches to building tolerance and do more for our children. First step: create physical safety. Second step: break up those cliques. Third step: Get students to find meaningful ways to relate to one another. The exact same techniques used in The Seeds of Peace program and advocated by Gordon Allport.

First step: start listening to the kids!