Update, Dec. 22, 2016, 8:40 p.m.: The Anti-Defamation League has spoken with the parents in question and asserted that the original report in Lancaster Online overstated their fear. The parents told the ADL that they left on vacation and did not “flee.” I asked ADL regional director Nancy Baron-Baer whether she believed the Lancaster Online report was inaccurate. She told me that the ADL did not contest “the actual story content,” including the fact that the family was disturbed by reactions to false media reports blaming the parents for the cancellation of the play. Rather, the ADL objected to the word “fled,” which “conjures up a very scary scenario,” such as “Syrian refugees fleeing the country with the shirt on their back.” The ADL “is not saying that the general statements of the story are untrue,” Baron-Baer explained. Lancaster Online has amended its original article with the ADL’s comment and an editor’s note stating that the paper “stand[s] by the original reporting on this story.”
Original post: A Jewish family whose child attends an elementary school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania has been subject to false reports on Fox News and Breitbart implying that the family forced the school to cancel a Christmas play.*
Centerville Elementary School has put on a production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for years, but educators have grown concerned that the play requires 20 hours of classroom time to produce. Changing state educational standards no longer allow for that luxury, Principal Tom Kramer noted in a post explaining why the school had cancelled the play. Educators also called off the production because they wished “to be respectful of the many cultural and religious backgrounds represented by the students.” (A Christmas Carol is unmistakably Christian.)
By coincidence, a Jewish family had requested that their child be excused from performing in the play back in September. They did not complain or ask that the play be cancelled, and the school insists that their request had nothing to do with the decision to cancel the production. But as Breitbart and Fox News’ Todd Starnes reported the story, “unnamed parents” complained about the line “God bless us, every one” and essentially forced the school to scrap the play.
These untrue claims fit neatly into both outlets’ “War on Christmas” narrative—and, as intended, sparked outrage among readers. “It would be nice if we had the addresses of those concerned citizens and, I bet, this info is known to people living in the area,” one commenter wrote in response to the Breitbart story. Several commenters posted the address of the school, and a self-professed white nationalist urged others to “take action.”
Lancaster Online reports that the Jewish parents who asked to excuse their child from the play were unnerved by these reactions.* “There’s no way we’re going to take a chance after the pizza incident,” one parent said, referring to the man who fired his assault rifle in a pizza restaurant after reading fake news stories alleging that the pizzeria housed a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton. The parents say their child was also harassed by classmates after the school canceled the play in November.
A wave of hate crimes and harassment, some of it anti-Semitic, followed Donald Trump’s electoral victory in November. The FBI recently reported that anti-Semitic hate crimes are the most common religion-focused hate crimes and that bias-motivated violence against Jews is on the rise following an extensive period of decline. Last Friday, a neo-Nazi website issued a call to “take action” against Jews living in Whitefish, Montana, the hometown of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. The site posted names, pictures, contact information, and addresses of purportedly Jewish Whitefish residents. Several have received death threats.
*Correction, Dec. 22, 2016, 8:40 p.m.: The original post and headline reported that the family fled the county, citing a Lancaster Online article. That story misstated the parents’ reaction. They have now told the ADL that they left the county on vacation and did not flee.