The Jewish community in the United States experienced more anti-Semitic incidents last year than in any other year since the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) began keeping records in 1979. In the last three years, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of anti-Semitic incidents.
Pristine Marin is not immune.
There were six reported anti-Semitic incidents in Marin from February 2019 to September 2020, according to the ADL. They include an emailed bomb threat to a Jewish community center and the disruption of a Jewish organization’s Zoom class by a white supremacist uttering an anti-Semitic tirade while displaying his swastika tattoo.
Those incidents, however, do not include recent activity on Instagram by a person or persons representing themselves as students at Redwood High School in Larkspur. One Instagram account, which appeared in late August or early September, featured a caricature of a bearded man wearing a yarmulke. The image looks like it could have come straight from Nazi propaganda literature. “Redwood students organized in anti semitism,” the profile’s description said. “We Currently compiling a google doc of Jews in the district. Hit us up if you want to help! Wehatej3ws.com.”
Jewish students in Marin reported the hate speech to Instagram. When the social media company removed the account, another was created to take its place. In total, at least three accounts with similar profiles were removed. The second had a more specific message: “doc naming all tam district jews.”
A posted photo showed a young male holding a bullet and wearing a helmet with a swastika. Some students believe they have identified him, although he donned a face covering, leaving only his eyes and the bridge of his nose exposed. The suspect has voiced anti-Semitic views in the past, they say.
Concerned parents and students began contacting the Tamalpais Union High School District (TUHSD) and Redwood officials on Sept. 2. Tara Taupier, superintendent of TUHSD, and Redwood Principal David Sondheim responded quickly, assuring parents the incident had been reported to the Central Marin Police Authority; however, they did not mention any planned direct action by the district.
Many were dissatisfied with the response. The Instagram profile’s reference to a list of Jewish students hearkens back to the 1930s and ’40s, when lists were used to identify Jewish citizens slated for deportment and extermination during the Nazi regime.
“We need to name it when we see anti-Semitism or experience it,” Rabbi Stacy Friedman, of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, said during a recent public Zoom forum. “We need to call it out specifically. It helps our students to own their experience and it also makes people more aware of their specific words and deeds that may be damaging and harmful.”
Two Redwood High School seniors, Samantha Glickman and Lindsay Felder, led the charge in demanding tougher action from TUHSD by creating a change.org petition on Sept. 20. The petition, “Demanding action against antisemitism in the Tam District,” asserts anti-Semitism is often “swept under the rug by Redwood and the Tam District.” It also decried the insufficient response, which focused on community action, rather than a district plan.
The petition has currently collected more than 6,500 signatures. How were two 17-year-old Jewish students brave enough to co-author the compelling appeal?
“We are part of a class at Redwood High called leadership, with 15 kids from each grade,” Glickman said. “Lindsay and I stayed after class to talk about the incident with the teachers and we volunteered to write a letter to the district. Others were frustrated with how the district was handling it, so we thought it would have more impact to do a petition for the community.”
The seniors were also inspired to write the petition because of other anti-Semitic incidents at Redwood. Both have heard slurs in the hallway and noticed offensive symbols around campus.
Apparently, their petition has had an effect. On Sept. 29, Sondheim penned a strong letter denouncing anti-Semitism and announcing a countywide Zoom webinar, in partnership with the county office of education, ADL, Marin district attorney’s office and Jewish leaders. The Confronting Online Anti-Semitism webinar took place on Sept. 30.
Sondheim’s letter went on to say he is Jewish and understands the fear the social-media posts evoked. He is not alone.
“I think if we were in school in person, I would definitely be scared,” Felder said. “I would be a lot more scared. I am scared now.”
No child should go to school scared, yet the statistics surrounding anti-Semitism are frightening. Although there was a slight decrease in overall hate crimes in California in 2019, there was a 12 percent increase in hate crimes targeting Jews, according to a report by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Do the Instagram posts meet the legal definition of a hate crime? We can’t rush to judgment, Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli said in the webinar.
Redwood High School is not held to the same standards as law enforcement. While the school has the responsibility to protect free speech, they also must ensure the safety of all students. The school has the liberty to discipline a student when there is significant unrest or disturbance or an unsafe environment, according to Sondheim.
“There is enough to take action as a school if it’s one of our students, and law enforcement is still investigating to see who is responsible,” Sondheim said.
While the investigation progresses, everyone agrees immediate action must be taken. Education is key.
“I see education as one of the strongest tools to combat anti-Semitism,” said Morgan Blum Schneider, director of the JFCS Holocaust center, a program of Jewish family and children’s services.
Today, the only Jewish education included in California public schools takes place in 10th grade, when students learn about the Holocaust in world history class.
San Rafael pediatrician Dr. Mike Harris volunteers with Stand With Us (SWU), an organization working to include Jewish-American studies in schools. The group lobbied to stop the passage of Assembly Bill 331, state legislation which laid out the curriculum for ethnic studies classes which will soon be required in all California high schools. Although SWU supports ethnic studies, they say the initial curriculum draft contained anti-Semitic and anti-Israel material. The final draft included recommended sources that were still problematic, according to Harris. It does not include Jewish-American coursework.
Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed AB 331, despite the fact the State Board of Education is mandated by law to approve an ethnic studies curriculum by March under a 2016 law.
As the state continues to debate the content of the ethnic studies curriculum, last week Marin County unveiled educational programs for students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members. The Confronting Antisemitism Educational Workshop Series, led by the JFCS Holocaust Center in partnership with the ADL and Marin County Office of Education, will start this month.
Still, students and teachers are not required to attend the workshops, prompting some community members to say the program has no teeth.
“I believe it’s an important step in the process of making change,” Blum Schneider said. “The workshops will also help parents have difficult conversations at home with teens.”
Those teens are likely going to save us from the hatred in this world. With youth like Glickman and Felder representing this rising generation, students at Redwood High will be standing together to call out anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. To register for the Confronting Anti-Semitism workshop series, visit: https://holocaustcenter.jfcs.org/holocaust-events/confronting-online-antisemitism/