Tag: Anti-Semitism

Omer Day #10: Responding to the Anti-Semitic and Racist Graffiti at Calabasas High School

Today is Day 10 of the Omer. I also invite you to read my daily reflections as we count the Omer

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:
  • Have we ever tolerated hate against others or dehumanized whole categories of human beings?
  • Have we, for instance, stood idly by while Muslims were stereotyped as a group for the terrible actions of the few, or have we spread or given credence to unfounded fears that all Arabs are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers?  
  • Have we nodded in agreement as the birther movement permeated what amounts to a subtle though most heinous form of racism against African Americans? 
  • Have we allowed laws and attitudes to continue even as they marginalize gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals, couples and families? 
  • Have we, children of immigrants, stood aside while people of Hispanic origin – citizens, permanent residents and undocumented workers alike – are forced to face daily the humiliations of prejudice?
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.

2 Must-Read Articles on the Cynical Misuse of the Holocaust as a New Weapon in the Arsenal of Anti-Semites

Israeli Avram Burg recently raised difficult questions as to whether the Holocaust has become ingrained as a dangerous lens through which Israeli leaders view the world. He suggests that the Holocaust skews their view of reality and leads to a “they are all out to get us” mentality. One may agree with or take issue with Burg’s argument, even as one praises the fact that a democratic society allows such critique from within.

Sadly, the Holocaust is being used increasingly in another way, as a “weapon against Jews and the Jewish state.” This is even more dangerous. Two articles, which came to my attention through the Daily Alert prepared by Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, illuminate this darkness:

Using the Holocaust to Attack the Jews – Walter Reich (Washington Post)

  • The Holocaust is being increasingly used as a weapon against the Jews and the Jewish state. As some people who don’t like Jews have found, it’s worth acknowledging the Holocaust if you can then turn it into a cudgel against the Jews. According to this crowd, the Jews today have become Nazis. The Jewish state is now supposedly carrying out a Holocaust against the Palestinians.
  • People of good will around the world are naturally shocked by the tragic and appalling deaths of Palestinian civilians, including those killed in the recent war in Gaza. But the massive and unceasing eruptions of outrage against the Jewish state – in a world in which other countries and groups have engaged in immensely more destructive and immoral behavior while provoking barely any outrage – can only be explained in a few ways.
  • One is that attacking Israel has become a means of attacking Israel’s ally, the U.S. Another is that over-the-top attacks on Israel, particularly those invoking Holocaust language, have become a means of once again attacking the Jews.

The writer, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, is a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Diminishing the Holocaust – Irwin Cotler (Montreal Gazette)

  • The lessons of the Holocaust risk losing their value if the tragedy of the Holocaust is invoked to fit every case of moral outrage. No recent event makes this more clear than the inflammatory misuse of Holocaust comparisons to describe the conflict in Gaza, in a dual demonizing indictment.
  • On the one hand, Jews are blamed for perpetrating a Holocaust on the Palestinians, as in the appalling statement of Norwegian diplomat Trine Lilleng that “The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors from World War II are doing to the Palestinians exactly what was done to them by Nazi Germany;” and on the other hand, crowds are incited to another Holocaust against the Jews, as in the chants of protesters who scream “Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the gas!”
  • Consider the simultaneous humanitarian crises in the world that were largely ignored during the war in Gaza. Darfur continued to be beset by genocide. Mass rape was being used as a weapon of war in the Congo. In Zimbabwe, a disastrous cholera epidemic was afflicting tens of thousands. Anarchy reigned in Somalia; systemic repression endured in North Korea, and political prisoners were being executed in Iran.
  • Meanwhile, Israel unilaterally halted its fighting in the middle of the day to allow humanitarian supplies to flow to Palestinians, and it warned civilians – by dropping leaflets and by phone – when attacks in their vicinity were coming.
  • The comparison between Israel’s action against Hamas – a terrorist group sworn to destroy Israel – and the Nazi Holocaust is as false as it is obscene. I say this not as a proponent of Israel, but as a voice for Holocaust remembrance.

The writer is a member of the Canadian Parliament and a former justice minister.