We don’t need no education–at least not like this…

Anti-semitism is on the rise in Europe. Strictly speaking, this may not be true, as Jews have traditionally had a difficult time in the “old world,” to say the least.

Why? Good question! Or is it?

I recently came across an article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper describing a very distasteful situation in the UK. According to the article, “British high school pupils were asked to explain bias against Jews in an official religious studies exam, British media reported on Friday. More than a thousand religious studies students sitting a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam last Thursday, set by one of the U.K’s three major examination boards, AQA, were asked, “Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.””

In defense of this brilliant question, a former chief examiner for religious studies for another examination board, Clive Lawton said “I do understand why people might react negatively to the question, but it is a legitimate one,” he said, adding, “Part of the syllabus is that children must study the causes and origins of prejudice against Jews.”

Out of curiosity, I wonder what the correct answers are to this brilliant question. Is there a real cause and origin of prejudice? Blaming Jews for killing Jesus? The blood libel? Protocols of the Elders of Zion and attempts by Jews to rule the world? Can any of this explain the Spanish Inquisition? The Dreyfus affair? The pogroms in eastern Europe that my grandparents survived? The Holocaust?

Taking things one step further, I can’t help wondering whether these high school students in the UK are awarded “bonus points” for rationalizing entirely new and as-yet-undiscovered causes and origins of prejudice against Jews. Does being creative and inventive bring extra exam points? Or should students stick to the basic and known reasons?

I think I have made my point. I sincerely hope that somebody in the education system has enough sense to put a stop to this.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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27 Responses to We don’t need no education–at least not like this…

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I agree that the wording of the exam question is atrocious.

    The article doesn’t explicitly say how that part of the curriculum is taught (as opposed to examined).

    There is this:

    _”An AQA spokesperson said in response that the question, “Acknowledges that some people hold prejudices; it does not imply in any way that prejudice is justified.” The spokesperson added that the question was part of a paper on Judaism, and that the students’ syllabus on the Jewish faith “covers prejudice and discrimination with reference to race, religion and the Jewish experience of persecution,” the Daily Mail reported. “We would expect [students to refer] to the Holocaust to illustrate prejudice based on irrational fear, ignorance and scapegoating.””_

    but that doesn’t fully answer my question. I think that learning “some people were prejudiced because of Misconception X, which is actually untrue because Y” would be a valuable lesson – approximately ten squillion times more interesting and useful than anything I ever learned in a religious studies lesson.

  2. Steve Caplan says:


    Thanks for the extra information from the Daily Mail (especially when I understand you are so busy preparing for your parents’ arrival!). In my view, the wording of the question is at the heart of the matter. It may well be beneficial for pupils to study anti-semitism and racism, identifying false and libelous claims that are used by the racists–but when worded in such a manner there is danger that any value to the syllabus is destroyed by the phrasing of the question.

  3. is racism against the jews on the rise in europe? i have no idea because i have no comparison point, even though i live here. however, there are jews living in germany and the germans at least, seem to be making efforts to not act in a racist manner towards them. now, as for current german attitudes towards the turks, on the other hand … uh, not so good.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Yes, anti-semitism is clearly on the rise in Europe, as a wide variety of experts and indications show. This is not to say that it isn’t part of a wider xenophobic pattern. It’s a very complicated measure, because in many countries (Scandinavia, for example) anti-semitism is often legitimized by criticism of Israel. But this is a whole other discussion for a future blog.

      • Just the other day I heard second-hand news from a former labmate who moved to Germany with her German boyfriend. Apparently, being a visible minority female in a small town in Germany is no picnic – people say things quite openly, to your face, that haven’t been acceptable in Canada or the UK since the 60s

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Small and rural populations tend to lag behind everywhere, so I am not surprised.

          Although I am not going to dig up the mass of scholarly articles in support of the contention of European anti-semitism, it’s important to note that the edict to have Jews tossed out of Spain has never actually been repealed since the inquisition. Anti-semitism is extremely rampant in this country, despite the fact that some estimates place at ~20% the number of today’s Iberians who share genetic ancestry with Jews (i.e., underwent forced conversion during the inquisition).

        • well, being female in germany is rather … um, challenging, just to put a polite word to it. my experience has been quite negative, but i thought that was just cuz i am female and american.

          • Steve Caplan says:

            Hang on– is being a female a visible minority?

          • well steve, i tried to reply to you, but couldn’t, so i’ll just reply to myself in response to your question.

            from what i’ve seen and been told by female scientists in germany, being a female in science is a visible minority — in germany. if a female scientist has colour in her skin, well, i’d imagine things are very bad for her (in germany).

          • Steve Caplan says:

            What can I say? Sounds like you might want to reconsider living there…

      • chall says:

        not to “defend” the Scandinavian…. but yes, some of the anti-semitism is rooted in the anti-Israel sentiments and also rooted in the “we’re for the Palestinian people” and “being in the left corner of politics”. Then you have the extreme right wings who also are doing the anti-semitism … and then there are the extreme muslims who go against the jewish faith etc.

        Anyhow, none of that is good. And yes, I would say that in general there is a more attacking others – like old school of bad times etc.

        As for the question on the exam, I would sort of like to know what a “full points answer” looks like….someone didn’t really think me thinks…

  4. The wording of the question is crass in the extreme, but studying and understanding the historical and cultural roots of prejudice (particularly antisemitism, which has such a long and awful history) is a good thing, surely? [Edit: just read your reply to Cath, so I think we agree here]. I reckon it would be a salutary lesson, having ‘worked through’ the first list in your fifth paragraph and seen the progression from the New Testament through the blood libel to the Protocols, to be told that there are still plenty of people around in the world today citing the Protocols approvingly.

    Anyway, I think one intent behind the question is genuinely to address and thereby tackle anti-semitism, much in the way that the post-war German education system does. But I suspect that whoever wrote the question wording is probably now looking for a new job.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      I am in agreement with you 100%. I think that addressing historical excuses for anti-semitisim and racism of all kinds is very important. A friend of mine once said “Never attribute malicious intent when the most likely cause is simple negligence.”

      In a sensitive area like this, the person who phrased that question clearly “dropped the ball.”

  5. I’d just like to clarify that I don’t read the Daily Mail – the quote that mentioned them was from within the same Haaretz article you linked to.

    Reputation management is very important on the internet 🙂

  6. chall says:

    You know Steve, the list you have shows just in itself that there is a repeated history going on for a looooong time. Sadly, I doubt that people today (let’s say people under 30 since I’m pessimistic) even know about Dreyfus… and the conspiracy theories have a sad legacy of staying in memories and making it even more complicated.

    I would really like some sort of “remembering” that the whole notion of pointing the stick on a certain group of people, be it jews, romani, Calvinists, Catholics, dark skinned, Kurds etc…. is indicative that the place is feeling threatened and will make any justification to get rid of the problem – while not rooted in “truth” or “real” and many times not even solve the problem.. (like unemployment or poverty). Of course, I might be severely naive (Scandinavian upbringing) when I still think that you can’t blame a ‘people’, only individuals….

  7. cromercrox says:

    Crox Minor was given a homework assignment in which she was asked to design a ‘poster’ promoting Hitler. I wrote furious letters to her teacher, her headmistress and the Secretary of State for Education, and received mealy-mouthed replies, saying that the word ‘poster’ was misconstrued.

    Antisemitism is everywhere in Europe, and in England, where it penetrates academia to the highest levels.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I would be naive to say that there’s no anti-semitism in the US, but as a whole there really isn’t very much. My daughter just returned from a school trip to Washington DC and NY, and The Holocaust Museum was one of the first things on the itinerary. Every year they learn about the Holocaust as part of English literature curriculum, and one of the school plays deals with racism, and/or the Holocaust. I don’t know whether Minor’s teacher is just stupid and insensitive, or whether there is real anti-semitism behind that assignment, but I am certain that Europe is in bad shape. There’s lots of room in Omaha!

      Here’s what Howard Jacobson, Man Booker prize winner and author of “The Finkler Question” had to say, indicating he would not be surprised in Jews in Europe and the UK would be in danger in 10-15 years time:


      • cromercrox says:

        What angers me quite beyond endurance is the way that the academic Left is preoccupied with issues such as feminism, to the extent of trying to root out ‘unconscious bias’ (see blogs from some of our own distinguished colleagues at OT), when the perfectly conscious bias against Jews is within their midst and needs addressing – a wilful ignorance which, I feel, speaks of a certain prejudice in itself. When I have spoken out against antisemitism in academia (and the hypocrisy of the Left) it has cost me dear.

        A bad spat of this with the Guardian that involved no less a personage than a very senior member of the Royal Society – who made denigrating remarks about my Jewishness in our private correspondence, which the Guardian made no attempt to check with me, or even ask my permission –
        led me to ask that a book I’d written not be sent there for review – a request met not by sympathy but by being dropped by my UK agent. My US agent was utterly shocked by this. To this day I have no literary representation in the UK.

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    Quite shocking–the issue of not being contacted by the reporter to hear your side, and that your agent didn’t support you. Do you see that as the fault of the paper or the specific “investigative reporter” who wrote the column?

    As for the complicated relationship between Israel and anti-semitism–it’s tough for most to really understand the complexities underlying these issues. As Jacobson rightly commented, if Israel were to disappear tomorrow, he suspects that alternative outlets for anti-semitism would not be long in surfacing. I agree.

    Here is an example of this type of behavior: Syria shelled the Upper Gallillee in Israel since the latter’s independence in 1948 from the Golan Heights. During these 20 years (1948-1967) Israel obviously did not hold the Golan Heights and roughly had borders that were more or less agreed upon by the UN in the 1947 partition plan. So once Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967 to stop the incessant shelling of legitimate towns and farms in its north, suddenly Syria claims that peace depends on Israel’s returning these areas. So why the shelling in the first place? Don’t get me wrong–I am in favor of peace and returning land for peace–I am just pointing out the hypocrisy here, too.

    With regards to fighting prejudice and bias of any sort–I think we all should do our best: whether they are issues of gender discrimination, anti-semitism, racism or any other form of bias. I think it’s natural that some of us will choose as our “flag” to fight specific issues–either those to which we have been victims, or that we hold close to our hearts. Perhaps there is room for all of us, regardless of any political affiliation, to pay more attention to the broader issue of bias. This would be a win-win situation for all.

    • cromercrox says:

      I wrote to the Guardian complaining of this unjournalistic behaviour – the Editor didn’t even reply to my letter. However, I had written science pieces for the Guardian and the Science Editor, Tim Radford thought I’d been badly treated and took up the case with the Guardian’s Reader Ombudsman, who found in my favour, and the paper printed a tiny apology on page 347ex9 of a future issue.

      The hypocritical treatment of Israel runs deep through the BBC (which, as one wag noted, is really the broadcast arm of the Guardian). They are quick to respond to Israeli military incursions into Gaza (which Israel has left) but don’t give the same headline treatment to the constant shelling of Israel from Gaza.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        I did see the little apology published at the bottom. Too little, too late.

        The issue of hypocritical treatment of Israel is a really tough one, as it is murky. I find it difficult to understand how anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of history (and especially in the UK) can be against the existence of the State of Israel. After all, Balfour and the UN Partition Plan gave mandate to a 2-state solution back in 1947.

        Once Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan River (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Golan Heights in 1967 after repeated attempts by neighboring countries to annihilate Israel and “push the Jews into the sea” between 1948-1967, things changed.

        I have always viewed the occupation of territories as something wrong–and yet, the solution is not so simple. Palestinians were repeatedly offered approximately 98% of the territory back by Prime Minister Rabin before his assassination, and even were offered additional land to compensate for the missing 2% (which already had large numbers of Israelis living there). I do not know whether the Israeli public at large would have regressed into civil war if Arafat had agreed. But he did not, and this has led to a series of Israeli governments who are much less interested in compromise.

        So who is at fault right now? As disgusted as I am with the current Israeli administration, it still bothers me greatly when the BBC and other news agencies hypocritically discuss Israel’s “use of excessive force” in Gaza. This territory was unilaterally returned years ago. The sea blockade by Israel is maintained to prevent the entry of rockets and other weapons that are constantly being fired on Israeli towns in the south (not that it helps sufficiently). Not at military installations, but at schools and cities and towns purely as a terror tactic. Does any country in their right mind not do whatever is necessary to protect its citizens?

        But the issue of how to be critical of Israel and its policies and still be fair by seeing the situation in its overall perspective is one that I think Europeans (in general) have not demonstrated much success.

  9. cromercrox says:

    I find it difficult to understand how anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of history (and especially in the UK) can be against the existence of the State of Israel.

    I find it extremely easy to understand, given the deep-rooted antisemitism in Europe, particularly among the left-leaning chatterati. British academia is absolutely lousy with it. This is why I shall never take people like Athene Donald seriously until she and others stop trying to isolate gender discrimination that isn’t there and address themselves to the dreadful racism in their midst whose presence they do not even acknowledge.

  10. chall says:

    I saw this today…. http://www.businessinsider.com/why-do-people-hate-jews-2012-5
    The article had change the title though, from “Why do peple hate jews” to this other one – What Are The Sources Of Anti-Semitism? The author has added a “I explain why I wrote this from the start etc etc….”

    (more story on the backdrop here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danielle-wienerbronner/why-do-people-hate-jews-blodget_b_1554745.html)

    I think it is interesting that the author still doesn’t address though, why the question is a stupid one.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thank you for the links, Chall. Interesting. From my perspective the issue is extremely important, but the question is atrociously worded for the following reason: it suggests that there is a “reason” for prejudice. Prejudice is just that: the attributing with no basis. So for a serious discussion, the question really needs to be: “Historically, what false claims and excuses have anti-semities used in their prejudice against Jews?” And you can replace the anti-semites with racists and Jews with any non-Caucasian race and so on.

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