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Swastikas and conspiracies: K-12 antisemitic incidents surge, ADL says

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A school district in San Francisco’s East Bay faced a flurry of criticism late last year from students, teachers and the Anti-Defamation League after they say administrators batted away complaints about an English teacher who taught from a 42-page pamphlet flush with antisemitic conspiracy theories.

The complaints at Mount Eden High School are part of a dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents in California and the nation at large, according to ADL data released Thursday morning. The ADL recorded 3,697 cases of antisemitism across the country in 2022, a 36-percent increase from 2021 and a record high since it began tracking the data in 1979.

Educational facilities outpaced the rate of growth of such incidents in the country at large: The ADL chronicled a roughly 50 percent rise in reported incidents in K-12 schools, and a roughly 40 percent increase in reported incidents at colleges and universities.

The case in California is particularly troubling to advocates, not just because of the antisemitic text used in the class, but because of the administration’s slow response and failure to quickly denounce the text. The incident is still being resolved, three months later.

“This case supports what we are seeing: a startling increase in antisemitic incidents and attitudes that are pervasive in communities all over the country,” said Teresa Drenick, ADL’s deputy regional director for the central Pacific region. “Even here, in the Bay Area, a place that prides itself on being so diverse and open minded and accepting, even here, we are seeing a rise in antisemitic attitudes and activities. It’s sobering.”

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In the middle of December, students and teachers at Mount Eden began complaining about 10th grade English teacher Henry Bens. They alleged that he was teaching a decades-old pamphlet called “The Hidden Tyranny” alongside Elie Weisel’s “Night,” a school-required autobiography of life in a Nazi concentration camp.

Bens did not return multiple requests for comment this week made by phone, email and social media.

“The Hidden Tyranny” was written by Benjamin H. Freedman, a Holocaust denier who claimed Jews control a “brainwashing monopoly” over U.S. media, according to the ADL. In the pamphlet, Freedman argued that Jews manipulated world events to achieve domination, including a successful plot to blackmail Woodrow Wilson into entering World War I.

After complaints were made to the ADL, it called for the text to be removed from the classroom. The organization also asked the school to create an action plan to show the lessons were “inaccurate, historically wrong and patently antisemitic,” Drenick said. But in a Feb. 10 note to the school district shared with The Washington Post, Drenick said that meetings with district officials had been canceled and conversations with administrators were failing to yield “any visible progress.”

It was two months after the initial complaint before the school responded publicly and said they had launched an investigation, students, teachers and the ADL said. The first public comment from the school and district came on Feb. 21 in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, Hayward Unified School District spokesman Michael Bazeley confirmed.

On Feb. 26, Monique Walton, Mount Eden’s principal, wrote in a note to the community that the school was working to repair the harm caused by the teaching and did not condone the use of hateful materials. That week, Bens was placed on a leave of absence.

Some students and teachers said they don’t feel the school has properly denounced the text.

“The school administration still has not done any work on campuswide healing and neither has districtwide administration,” said Heather Eastwood, a teacher at the high school.

“Currently, our campus is unsafe, divided, and hurting,” said Ruchita Verma, a senior. “We don’t feel the administration is taking this seriously enough.”

In a statement to The Post, Bazeley defended the district’s actions. He said an investigation is ongoing, but that it has been clear that the “types of supplemental materials alleged to have been shared with students are inappropriate.”

“We understand that some people have wanted this part of the healing process to begin sooner,” said Bazeley. The district is now working with the ADL to develop curriculum for the school to address the text, he added.

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Drenick, from the ADL, said implementing new curriculum is crucial.

“Lessons learned at such a young age can stick — the good ones and the bad ones,” she said. “Once things are taught and digested by students, it is very, very difficult to ever unwind that.”

In Northern California, antisemitic incidents, including vandalism, harassment and assaults, more than doubled in 2022 compared with the year prior, according to the ADL. Across the country, incidents have included complaints about students and teachers in middle and high schools dressing as Hitler, texting about gas chambers in group chats and vandalizing schools with swastikas, the ADL reported.

In California, antisemitic incidents at K-12 schools nearly doubled, according to the ADL data. Across the country, swastikas were present in almost nine out of 10 antisemitic vandalism cases at schools.

Though the rise cannot be attributed to a single reason, the ADL said white supremacists are increasingly engaging in coordinated efforts to spread antisemitic propaganda. The ADL reported earlier this year that Americans’ antisemitic attitudes are at their highest levels in decades.

Jillian Bontke, who runs ADL’s education program in Texas and the surrounding region, said it falls on the adults in a school to set an example for their students, something she says has gotten harder as some states pass laws limiting what teachers can say.

“Teachers don’t know what to do because they might be worried about what they are allowed to say,” said Bontke. “How an administration responds to these incidents is super critical.”


An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that in Northern California, antisemitic incidents, including vandalism, harassment and assaults, more than tripled in 2022 compared with the year prior, according to the ADL. The incidents more than doubled. The article has been corrected.