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Anti-Defamation League calls viral tale of Jewish family fleeing Pennsylvania 'untrue and damaging'

An elementary school in Centerville, Pennsylvania, decided not to put on a fifth-grade production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol this year, for the first time in at least two decades, primarily blaming the 20 hours of classroom rehearsal and preparation time plus new state education standards that don't allow that kind of space for extracurricular activity. Things got out of control pretty fast, like a madcap game of telephone for the internet era.

On Dec. 15, local TV station WHTM reported that "many parents believe" the play was canceled because "two parents" complained about the line "God bless us, every one." Two days later, Fox News columnist Todd Stearns publicized the story as part of the purported "War on Christmas," and by Thursday, Lancaster Online reported that "a Jewish family has fled the county in fear because it's being blamed for the cancelation," noting incitement from the Stearns column and an article in Breitbart. The fleeing Jewish family story went viral, and on Thursday night, the Anti-Defamation League stood athwart the clickwave, yelling "Stop."

"News reports alleging that a Jewish family has 'fled' Lancaster County are untrue and damaging," Nancy Baron-Baer, the ADL regional director in Philadelphia, said in a statement. "We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously planned vacation for the holidays. Stories like this can sow fear in the Jewish community and beyond, and it is important to stop the spread of misinformation."

The school district clarified on Wednesday that the decision to cancel the play "had nothing to do with a religious concern" and "was not influenced by parents." Which is not to say the family wasn't falsely accused of killing the play — Rabbi Jack Paskoff of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster told JTA that he spoke with the family and they confirmed that their son has been harassed at school over the Christmas Carol cancelation. But it doesn't take much to create conflagrations out of sparks these days, and hysteria's a bipartisan affliction.