RABBI’S NOTE: Our community has been following the discovery and investigation of anti-Semitic and racist graffiti with great concern, pain, and anger. Who could believe that here in Calabasas, an enlightened and open community, we would be subjected to the use of such heinous slurs?
I have spoken to the Calabasas High School principal CJ Foss and the Assistant Principal Eric Anhalt. Additionally, I have had multiple conversations with the Anti-Defamation League(ADL). In each discussion, all participants did not mince words: they offered a condemnation of the actions, an intent to take this situation very, very seriously, an openness to suggestions as to how to respond, and a desire to educate and bring healing. I was pleased to hear that Calabasas High School has already been involved, through it’s many clubs, in holding awareness days for a variety of sometimes marginalized groups.
I am exceedingly satisfied that the school district is partnering with the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department and the ADL to educate toward tolerance and pluralism.
But let’s be clear, Jews are not endangered in Calabasas. We are present in all levels of civic and communal life. We have multiple synagogues and our own Congregation Or Ami sanctuary off Las Virgenes. We have good relations with other Calabasas groups, institutions, and organizations.
So while we condemn these acts, and want them to be taken seriously and responded to with teaching and justice, we take comfort that law enforcement acted so quickly and has now asked for the most serious of punishments, indictment on felony vandalism charges coupled with the hate crime enhancement. We feel confident that the school did the same with its confidential recommendations to the superintendent and the school board.
And so three 11th graders spewed hate and anger, spray-painting anti-Semitic and racist graffiti all over Calabasas High School. They were non-discriminatory with their discrimination, shooting their poisonous arrows at a wide swath of minorities. They were non-prejudicial with their prejudice, naming individuals – reportedly a mix of Jews, African-Americans, and other people – students, teachers and administrators. Their actions have been roundly condemned.
Now that the three have been caught, confessed in writing, they are learning quickly that – whatever the motives – their graffiti smut is neither tolerated nor acceptable. Still, we are unable to make sense of it all.How could our innocent, accepting city harbor such hate? Many will look for meaning in this madness, hoping to point our fingers in blame at an absentee parent or worse, an abusive upbringing.
We should also ask ourselves why these acts are so distressing. Like most vicious attacks, these use symbols, which conjure up a whole history of hatred and violence.
Writing “whites only” on a water fountain recalls America’s shameful, painful past when the color of one’s skin was used to deny the worth of one’s soul. Daily rejections of human equality were enshrined in law; random beatings and lynchings were rampant. To scrawl those words is to paint a target on every person of color. It is particularly offensive to see our children use such language to harm others.
The use of the swastika and the words “let’s triple 6 million” recall the horrific genocide of 6 million Jews and 5 million others including children, homosexuals, gypsies, and others. The swastika remains one of the most powerful and enduring emblems of religious and ethnic hatred. It recalls the time of nationalist systematic murder, and of widespread international indifference.Few anti-Semitic acts more deeply strike pain into the heart of a Jew.
Occurring during the holy days of Passover and near the holy week of Easter, and naming at least 6 individuals of diverse backgrounds and religions, this act of graffiti takes a particular type of hatred to pointedly attack others.
Why in the world did these three youth feel it was acceptable to use such dehumanizing language? Is this behavior an anomaly or, frightfully, might they be particularly egregious examples of attitudes that pervade a society that finds spewing pointedly painful words tolerable?
It is easy to condemn the graffiti which uses words and symbols that we agree upon to be historically language of hate. But what about words about which society has not yet agreed to roundly condemn? The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of chasidism, taught that often we rebuke in others what we find and hate in ourselves. Thus he challenges us, when anger fills us up, turn inward and fix our own failures.
So we ask ourselves:
It is easy to rise up and condemn others when we have been harmed. It is another thing – greatly more difficult – to move off the couch or look up from our texting to recognize the humanity of the other. Thirty six times in the Bible we are told to treat the stranger as we treat the citizen; 36 times we are reminded how dear to the Holy One are the most vulnerable.
As a community, Jew are making our way from the exodus from Egypt to the celebration of receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai. From the holy days of Passover to Shavuot.
Like our Biblical ancestors, we have a choice: Embrace the fear that kept our biblical ancestors cowering as oppressed slaves in Egypt. Or embrace the Torah, a gift of God which delineates a whole system of ethics to guide our steps.
So we thank our law enforcement and Justice systems, with whom we have very good relations, for vigorously responding to these heinous acts. We thank the school and the district for utilizing this as another opportunity to educate about pluralism and tolerance.
Simultaneously, let us expect of ourselves, at our deepest levels, that we do curb our collective inactions that do wrong to others, either through our deeds or more likely through the attitudes we harbor.
Calabasas, CA is one of the best places to live in America. We as a community need to use this abomination to teach ourselves and our children that we love our neighbors as ourselves, even the ones who look different, pray differently, and those we just don’t know.