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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Community Responds to Nazi-Saluting Orange County Teens

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Erin Ben-Moche
Erin is the Digital Content Manager at the Jewish Journal. She writes about Jewish art and culture.

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On the evening of March 2, a group of Newport Beach high school students at a party posted a photo online of themselves giving the Nazi salute over a series of red-solo cups formed into the shape of a swastika. 

One partygoer wrote “ultimate rage” in one photo while another was captioned “German rage cage,” perhaps in reference to a drinking game, before posting it on Snapchat.

Orange County’s Temple Bat Yahm’s Senior Rabbi Gersh Zylberman told the Journal that it was “unnerving” that anti-Semitism is on the rise. “Did they learn it from peers or pick it up from home?” Zylberman asked. “Or social media? We don’t know.” 

The Los Angeles Times reported March 4 that some of the partygoers in the images are believed to be current students or recent graduates of Newport Harbor High School.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District President Charlene Metoyer told the Orange County Register she was “devastated” by the photo. “As a school board, we’re not only concerned by the underage drinking, but also the mental health of the students who participated in this horrendous act and all their fellow students who will be affected by it,” Metoyer said. “This is appalling to not just our Jewish student community, but to all of us who care about human rights.”

In a statement she provided to the Journal, she wrote: “At this time we are focused on investigating the situation, listening to our community, and working with community partners and determining next courses of action. We are taking action!”

On March 4, Newport Mesa School District held a town hall meeting attended by more than 500 people. 

“We all, collectively, bear responsibility for the hijacking of these symbols of human misery and destruction for casual entertainment.” — Paul S. Nussbaum

Arlene Miller, CEO and President of Orange County Jewish Federation and Family Services, who attended the event, told the Journal she was impressed by the number of elected officials, members of the community, Jewish officials, students and Holocaust survivors who attended the town hall. 

Miller said Orange County’s Jewish community is vibrant, with 30 congregations of all denominations, three Jewish day schools and 300 Holocaust survivors. “The fact that  [Holocaust survivors] live within our midst, it was upsetting to them to hear that there are swastikas scratched into the desks at schools,” Miller said.

Miller said the next step is to understand how the district teaches the Holocaust and how the Jewish community can help. “That is our focus,” she said. “How do we listen to the schools and understand the gaps and let them know of the resources and access to programs regionally and nationally, and how do we create a roadmap moving forward?” 

“I’ve been impressed with the swift action by the schools and how they handled it,” Zylberman said. “I don’t know the students personally but I know they’ve expressed regret and claimed they didn’t understand the significance of those symbols. That may be the case but I hope their apologies are sincere and I hope those lessons become a teachable moment that they will keep in mind for the rest of their lives.”

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust President Paul S. Nussbaum also wrote in a statement, “We all, collectively, bear responsibility for the hijacking of these symbols of human misery and destruction for casual entertainment. Parents, teachers, educators and our elected leaders need to emphatically condemn these incidents and pledge to enlighten and educate our youth.”

Roz Rothstein, CEO of the nonprofit Israel advocacy group StandWithUs said in a statement to the Journal, “As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I know that swastikas and Nazi salutes are not a joke or something to be taken lightly. To make light of the industrial-scale genocide committed against Jews and others during World War II is to dance on the graves of millions of people. That said, despite the insensitivity and ignorance this incident represents, I believe it also creates an opportunity for a powerful teachable moment.”

The next town hall will be at 6 p.m. March 7 at Corona del Mar High School.

Additional reporting by Staff Writer Aaron Bandler.

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