Growing up as a Jew in South County, I feel that I experienced the full spectrum of intolerance. In middle school I had a social studies teacher who wore his Christian bias on his sleeve when he taught a section on the world religions. In the same class there was a group of students who attended services and youth group at Saddleback Church, and they were given obvious preferential treatment by the teacher for that reason. After learning that I was Jewish, these students would regularly invite me to attend services with heavy-handed implications about my “salvation.”
At around the same time, I experienced bullying, harassment and even threats of violence from students who, in hindsight, looked a whole lot like skinhead punks. One afternoon, two of them followed me from school to the local public library, all the while calling me “kike” and making the “Nazi salute” hand gesture.
This is why I was dismayed, but not surprised, to learn that an image had surfaced of students from Newport Harbor High School, at a party, giving the “Nazi salute” around red cups arranged in the shape of a swastika. My immediate reaction was anger. In fact I was furious, and all my early, formative experiences with intolerance came rushing back in a flood of outrage and righteous indignation.
I decided, right then and there as I absorbed the first reports of the still-unfolding story, that I needed to write something. But what I wanted to write has changed as my feelings about the incident have evolved. After the rage subsided I became curious. Who were these students? What motivated them? Were they the sons and daughters of Klansmen and card-carrying members of the John Birch Society? Or were they simply children—lacking the advantages of fully developed prefrontal cortices—who made a profound mistake?
While working out my feelings about the situation and trying to uncover all the facts and nuances about this specific incident, I could not help but be reminded of another recent story involving the alleged bigotry of teenagers
In early March, students from Covington Catholic High School—donning “Make America Great Again” hats—were filmed in a supposed standoff with a Native American tribal elder on the steps of the United States Capitol.
A short video quickly circulated on Twitter that seemed to show one of the students smirking in the face of the elder while his classmates chanted, “build the wall.” This video was seized upon by celebrities, activists and journalists alike who—unable to resist a chance to virtue signal their opposition to racism—rushed to judge and condemn these children for their alleged sins.
Cathy Griffin called for the “doxxing” of the students involved. BuzzFeed senior culture writer Anne Helen Petersen tweeted that the face of the main student involved in the altercation bore “the look of white patriarchy.” And public intellectual Reza Aslan tweeted, “Have you ever seen a more punchable face?” presumably about the same student.
When a fuller, one-hour and 46-minute video of the altercation emerged, it became abundantly clear that the hot takes—even those from credible news outlets—were wrongheaded and based on insufficient information. Not only was there a third faction involved in the altercation that wasn’t visible in the doctored viral video, but the Native American elder appeared to have provoked the confrontation with the school kids by forcefully approaching one student and beating a drum within inches of the student’s face.
While some of the journalists, news organizations and public figures that had condemned the students have since apologized, the damage was done. An entire school and community was unfairly slandered, and the students and their families continue to endure an onslaught of death threats.
With this episode clear and present in my mind, I was certainly hesitant to censure the Newport Harbor High School students. Even when it became plain that there was absolutely no context that could excuse the photo, the idea of these students facing the same reprisals in the court of public opinion as the Covington students struck me as wrong and ineffective at achieving the goal of promoting tolerance.
It is a well-documented phenomenon that ostracising people for hateful rhetoric or actions does nothing to convince the perpetrators that their behavior was wrong. If anything, in these situations people often double-down. If you wish to change people’s minds or encourage them to reflect on their behavior, it is often most useful to approach them with empathy or, at the very least, compassion. And that’s exactly what Director of Newport Beach’s Chabad Center for Jewish Life, Rabbi Reuven Mintz, has been doing in.
On Thursday, March 7 – shortly after the image shocked and embroiled the school, county, and Jewish community—Anne Frank’s stepsister Eva Schloss addressed many of the same teens seen in the photo. Most of the students have also penned hand-written—and in my opinion genuinely sincere—apologies for the group’s callous mistake, addressed to their classmates, the school, and the Orange County Jewish community.
The old expression that “kids will be kids” holds no water as far as I’m concerned. In Central and Eastern Europe—where some of the worst pogroms were visited upon the Jewish communities—young, non-Jewish children would often make a game of throwing stones and otherwise tormenting old, Hasidic Jews. When these children’s vicious prejudices were not corrected by their parents—and in fact, in many cases they were encouraged by them— is it any surprise that many would grow up to be hateful bigots themselves?
This is why the reaction of the school and Jewish community, in my opinion, was apt, and elicited the best possible response from the students themselves. In many of their letters, the students expressed a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust and about the horrific legacy of Jew-hatred throughout history. This points to a concerning trend among millennials and the American public more broadly.
One survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, showed that 41 percent of those polled “did not know what Auschwitz was” and “nearly one-third of respondents believed that less than 2 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.” The same survey showed that 22 percent of millennials had never heard of the Holocaust, and 49 percent of millennials could not name a single concentration camp.
This degree of ignorance among the United States’ population regarding the Holocaust has gotten worse since similar polls were taken in 1985 and 1992. And it is unsurprising that ignorance about any event grows as the amount of time after the event increases.
But unless we as a Jewish community do a better job of engaging youth about the evils of the Holocaust—both the outright atrocities of the worst perpetrators as well as the failures to act by “neutral” bystanders—we can only expect more incidents like the photo from Newport Harbor High School students going forward.