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A Community's Response to Anti-Semitism

Two days ago my wife and I attended a Community Forum at Newport Harbor High School, in Newport Beach, the school that has recently attracted negative attention when photos surfaced of a off-school grounds weekend party where students from that school and two others played “Nazi beer pong,” which involved a Swastika symbol, and some gave a Nazi salute. The students also were reported to be drinking alcohol. The forum was convened in order to discuss the behavior at the student party. My wife and I attended the forum for two reasons: we live in Newport Beach and our niece goes to that high school (as did her older sister), and my grandson goes to another Newport Beach high school, and we wanted to show support for the Jewish community. The meeting was attended by the mayors of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, the two cities from which the students at the party came, principals from each of the high schools involved, school board members, and representatives of the Jewish community, as well as student leaders.

We expected a small crowd and that the attendees at the meeting might include many who defended the students in the photo. Neither of those expectations proved true. The auditorium, which holds 500 people, was packed, with people standing along the sides and flowing out into the lobby. The crowd appeared 100% in support of the Jewish community and of the need to rid the city of the kind of hateful gesture that the students at the party made. There were standing ovations for student speakers, several of them Jewish students at Newport Harbor High School. There was a standing ovation for the two Holocaust survivors in the audience. 

The OC Register ran an article about the meeting that was headlined “Swastika sparks outrage—including from a Holocaust survivor—at meeting in Newport Beach.” The headline implied that the chief reaction to the incident was anger. That was not the case. The behavior was roundly condemned and every speaker, from the school principle, to a local Rabbi to the school student body president said that it did not represent “who we are.” The student speeches were particularly moving. Jewish students recounted incidents of anti-Semitic jokes and comments at their expense, and swastikas carved into desks and in lavatories. One Jewish student also brought up the social separation between Mexican-American and White students at the school and said that such behavior, based on prejudice, also “has to stop.” Another Jewish student, whose grandmother is a Holocaust survivor and was in the audience, gave a particularly impassioned and thoughtful commentary. He said the partygoers “should not be condemned or harassed,” because their behavior represented ignorance more than malice. Their behavior should be condemned however, and the students needed to learn how it hurt others. It brought back frightening memories for his grandmother.

There is anti-Semitism in Newport Beach, as there is nearly every place else in the U.S., The city is mostly White, very wealthy, and its students are privileged. I used to have a tutoring business and the students I tutored were mostly from Newport Beach high schools, including Newport Harbor High School. Yes, many of them felt entitled, and had little insight into the lives of others who weren’t like them. It is a situation in which all types of prejudice can take hold. But the schools themselves do a wonderful job of educating their students about racism, anti-Semitism, bullying, and the history of the Holocaust and the American Civil Rights Movement. Students read The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird and write essays about them. Obviously some students don’t get the message, and out of prejudice, ignorance, or just following along with the crowd, engage in anti-Semitic as well as other types of discriminatory behavior.

The community surprised and pleased me with its overwhelming response and its determination not to allow such anti-Semitic behavior to go unnoticed and uncorrected. Nine students who attended the party met with a Rabbi and issued an apology, after discussing the situation and the harm it caused with him. An equal number refused to do so, so not everyone was contrite or learned a lesson. It was a good learning experience for my 14-year-old niece, who spent her history class with the teacher leading a discussion of the Holocaust on Monday. Her other teachers also brought up the subject, and it led to a thorough discussion of Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust at home between her and my wife and me.

The Newport Beach community and the school district, as well as each of the high schools that the students at the party attend immediately seized the incident to come together, highlight the harm such behavior can cause and develop more plans to continue to educate their students about anti-Semitism in particular and prejudice and hate in general. Another community forum at another Newport Beach high school is scheduled for tomorrow night and this weekend there will be an interfaith forum to discuss the incident in nearby Irvine. No one has let the incident slide. Everyone agreed that what begins as a racial or anti-Semitic joke can turn into a normalization of prejudiced behavior, which in turn leads to discrimination and hateful behavior. Nipping such behavior in the bud is necessary. 

The Newport Beach community’s response is a step in the right direction.

Reader Comments (3)

While the community response and the students' approach are heartening, that half the students involved in the incident remain unwilling to learn shows us the entrenched bigotry, no doubt learned and reinforced in the home, that pervades so many communities in our nation. We have our local bigot, a convicted criminal who ran for the office of Cape Cod Commissioner in 2016 and won, and who's done nothing since except spread fear and hatred. There is a great deal of push-back, but he finds his vocal, at times violent supporters as well. We are far from having learned enough about bigotry to extinguish it, and the so-called leadership in the White House only encourages and promotes it.

March 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

I think it is a bit puzzling, though as a Jew I feel proud, that many words of defense of the bigots were said by those who were attacked by them.

March 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIM

Are there Jewish students in this High school? How did they react to their peers' party? What did they do about it? Were they intimidated by the occasion? I find this a much more interesting subject than how all these nice people gathered to mingle and show off their 'values'.

April 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterYoffy

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