A rumor that a Jewish family was to blame for an elementary school canceling its annual production of “A Christmas Carol” snowballed on conservative news outlets this week.
Since the story spread online, a child in the family who is enrolled in fifth grade at the school in Lancaster, Penn. was subjected to taunts and harassment by schoolmates and a threatening comment on Breitbart News suggested publishing the parents’ names so they could “thank them personally.”
Speaking to Lancaster Online anonymously, the family said they pulled their child from school and temporarily left Lancaster because they weren’t “going to take a chance after the pizza incident,” referring to the event earlier this month when a gunman brought an assault rifle to Comet Ping Pong, the Washington, D.C., pizza place at the center of a fake news story about Hillary Clinton operating a secret child-sex-trafficking operation there.
But the Anti-Defamation League published a statement Thursday evening that the family did not flee town out of fear, but rather had left for a winter break vacation.
“We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously-planned vacation for the holidays,” ADL regional director Nancy Baron-Baer said in a statement. “There is no truth to the rumor that the school canceled A Christmas Carol at the request of parents.”
The parents did ask if their child could be excused from participating in the Charles Dickens play, according to the local newspaper account, but said they never complained about it happening or asked for it to be canceled.
But last week a local TV station ran a story suggesting that the play had been canceled because of two parents’ objections to the famous Tiny Tim line, “God bless us, everyone.” The piece reported that Centerville Elementary School officials said the complaint did cause them to give the play a second thought. Fox News and Breitbart picked up on it and ran with it, after which the school received more than 200 calls and emails.
In a letter sent to parents on Dec. 15, and a subsequent question and answer posted on the school’s website, the school principal categorically denied that the play was canceled this year because of any parents’ complaints, but rather that school officials had determined that preparing for the play would take up too much academic time.
“One rumor we’ve been addressing is that one or two families influenced this decision,” wrote Tom Kramer, Centerville Elementary School principal. “That’s just not true. The instructional time issue was our primary concern.” In the FAQ the school posted, Kramer said there was no religious complaint made about the play.
A spokeswoman for the school district refused to comment further and directed The Washington Post to those statements.
Lancaster County, an area known for its Amish community, is predominantly Christian, though it is home to three synagogues.
Rabbi Jack Paskoff, of Lancaster’s Shaarai Shomayim reform synagogue, said the family does not belong to his shul, but he’s been closely involved in the situation and in regular touch with the family.
Paskoff said the child was being taunted on the school bus by kids saying it was “your fault the play was canceled.”
“It was getting prevalent enough that the family got concerned,” he said.
Since Donald Trump’s election, there has been a greater awareness of the dangers posed by online fake news perpetuated by some groups, including members of the alt-right, a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state. Individuals and businesses, such as Comet Ping Pong, have been the subject of false stories and conspiracies resulting in direct threats.
But with all the vitriol, there has also been a renewed recognition of the importance of community. Paskoff said members of the Lancaster Interfaith Coalition have asked him for ways to help the family. He has suggested people send notes of encouragement to the child and the parents letting them know they’re not alone. He’s collecting them and passing them along.
That might be what the mother was referring to when she told Lancaster Online: “We’ve seen some really beautiful things from the people in this community.”
This story has been updated to reflect a new statement from the Anti-Defamation League.