Oh, the tsuris of being a Jewish child on Christmas. All those mall Santas, nativity scenes and choruses proclaiming “glory to the newborn king” – it can be a little awkward if you’re not one of “ye faithful.” But when a Jewish fifth grader at a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, grade school asked to opt out of her school’s annual Christmas play, she found herself alternately cast as villain and victim in a series of fictional narratives that went viral.
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On Thursday, Lancaster Online reported that a local Jewish family had “fled the county in fear” after being framed in a fake news story on Fox News and Breitbart that accused them of waging a war on Christmas and killing Centerville Elementary School’s more than 30-year tradition of “A Christmas Carol.”
“That’s just not true,” wrote the school’s new principal, Thomas Kramer, in a statement he posted on the school’s website on December 15. He said his decision was not motivated by “a religious concern” but because it took 20 hours of class time away from students.
But the story that the family “fled in fear” also was false, says the Anti-Defamation League's regional director for eastern Pennsylvania, Nancy Baron-Baer.
“They didn’t run away – they went on their planned holiday vacation,” she says. “We know this family. We’ve been in contact with them on numerous occasions and the connotation that they fled is a scary one. We want to assure the community that there’s no reason to fear. They’re coming back. I promise.”
Baron-Baer contacted outlets like Slate and The Washington Post to retract the false parts of their story. The family, which asked not to be identified, did not respond to calls for an interview. Lancaster Online reported that they were concerned about their child’s safety after hearing of the incident at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, fueled by a fake news story promoted by Gen. Michael Flynn’s son.
How did the story of a school-curriculum change fuel a storm over a war on Christmas and allegations of anti-Semitism?
“That’s a good question,” says Baron-Baer, who says Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation in terms of number of hate groups, though Lancaster is an oasis of tolerance. Though Jews make up only around 0.5 percent of the local population, the ADL hasn’t reported as much of an uptick in hate crimes in Lancaster as it has in other parts of the state.
The story was initially covered by a local ABC news affiliate, which portrayed the Jewish family as a modern-day Scrooge.
“The news was reported inaccurately from the get-go,” says Rabbi Jack Paskoff of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, who consulted the family. “They claimed that the parents threatened a lawsuit, that they insisted that the show be canceled, that the parents objected to the line ‘God bless us everyone,’ but none of that was accurate, and so it became a story about the war on Christmas.”
This spin got amplified in a Fox News editorial and on the Breitbart website, which is affiliated with the so-called "alt-right" with comments like “More leftists purging of Christianity” and “It's past time, and 'we the people' elected a strong, Good American, in Donald J Trump, who will bring back normalcy and common sense to America, and will FIGHT the Aclu, and WIN!”
The hateful vitriol also affected the child.
“The student would get bullied on the school bus with accusations like: ’It’s because of the Jew that our play got canceled,’” says Rabbi Paskoff. “But the parents networked with other parents and things had quieted down.”
The rabbi says that since the false story of the family fleeing broke on Thursday, his phone has been flooded with calls of support. “The encouraging thing is just how many people in this community want to help,” he says. “I keep referring them to join our Interfaith Coalition,” started last year as a response to the hate on the campaign trail.
“It’s not a new phenomenon,” says Rev. Susan Minasian, the chaplain at Franklin & Marshall College and a member of Lancaster’s Interfaith Coalition. “It’s just that no one seems to have a filter anymore – and that goes for news. The whole notion that a small child could get a school district to cancel its play is just ludicrous. And let’s also be clear that a child has every right to say, ‘I don’t want to be in that play,’" she says.
“I don’t understand as a Christian that people can talk of a war on Christmas. We’re buying into the Madison Avenue post-World War II version of what Christmas is about. That some people would think that by being inclusive, we’re taking something away from them – I just don’t even know how to respond to that.”
Others in the coalition agreed.
“It just breaks my heart,” says Shakeel Amanullah, chairman of the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster and another member of the Interfaith Coalition. He adds that he has never noticed any bigotry in the area.
“Lancaster is a beacon of light. People talk about being tolerant," he says. "But I think we must do more than that and really learn to cherish each other, not just tolerate, the way I feel about Rabbi Paskoff. He’s like a brother to me. So to hear of a Jewish child being targeted deeply saddens me."