For decades now, the Bay Area has self-identified as the liberal hub of acceptance and on the edge of social change. The Black Panthers movement began in Oakland. The Summer of Love converged here. San Francisco was a cornerstone in the Gay Pride and Women’s Liberation movements.
That being said, the Bay Area may not be making the social progress we think we are making. In recent months, something appears to be driving our youth to participate in anti-Semitic and racist behavior.
This past month, a middle school student at the Head-Royce School in Oakland was caught drawing a swastika on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. While I was deeply unsettled, I wasn’t altogether surprised, as it fits with the trend observed in the graphic above.
What is motivating young students from predominantly liberal communities in to engage in anti-Semitic and racist behaviors? And where are elementary school students learning to draw swastikas (as at Arroyo Seco Elementary School)?
In my quest for an answer, I reached out to many Bay Area principals whose schools have been targets of such behavior in order to tease out the motivation of the offending students. In an email, Ralph Crame, the principal of Carlmont High School, wrote to me that “After investigation and identification of the student responsible, we determined that it was more of an attention seeking act and not one that stems from hatred of the Jewish people.” Others suggest similar conclusions. My question is as follows: why have anti-Semitism and racism become what students turn to in their pursuit of attention?
To be fair, it is a well-known fact that youth culture has always included the idealization of rebellion. Everyone is familiar with the narrative trope of the young girl falling for the bad boy, or teens stealing alcohol from their parents. Historically, youth have also been integral in creating rebellious movements, such as Hell’s Angels in the ’60s, and the Punk movement in the ’70s.Testing one’s boundaries is part of growing up and gaining independence. And the antithesis of teenage rebellion on many school campuses are the confines of PC Culture.
I’ve seen students giggle when teachers give them trigger warnings. Many of us roll our eyes at teachers when they say “You can’t SAY there are just two genders.” In an attempt to make everyone feel included, a power dynamic is created in classrooms between the teacher – the enforcer – and the students – the rebels.
This dynamic also applies outside of the classroom. We all watch the news, or at least read Buzzfeed on Snapchat. We all consume mainstream media and are subconsciously aware when major anti-Semitic and racist incidents make the news. Since the smaller incidents described in the graphic generally don’t make the news, many people aren’t aware of how widespread this problem is.
The most obvious example of a recent anti-Semitic and racist event is the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville., Va. On Aug. 16, four days after the Unite the Right Rally, clicks on Neo-Nazi sites were 100 times higher than they had been just eight days before, according to Google Trends.
A recent study by the Coordination Forum for Countering anti-Semitism noted a 114% increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric online this past year. Seventy-five percent of Jewish college students report facing anti-Semitism during college. The windows of an Alameda synagogue were shattered, “F*** you Nazi Jews,” was recently spray painted on my temple the night before Rosh Hashanah.
Although Neo-Nazism is still a fringe movement, internet subcultures, along with mainstream media coverage results in some of the rhetoric bleeding into the mainstream. Thus, when students are joking around in the halls for the sake of being provocative, anti-Semitism is more likely to come up, simply because of it has seeped into our media.
Maybe the student who drew swastikas on Rosh Hashanah is an antisemite or a racist, most likely he is not. More likely they want some laughs from their friends, and they want the thing that teens want more than anything: to fit in. And because our media legitimizes it, anti-Semitic behavior is no longer grounds for social ostracization.
That being said, the intent of the action does not justify it in any regard. Provocative language (like Heil Hitler) which students mean as a joke nonetheless supports very real movements with real anti-Semitic and racist goals.
So while teenagers will never be the most PC group of individuals in America, we need to be more aware of certain uses of hate speech. There are other ways to be provocative than to accelerate a movement that seeks to “Hate Jews like Hitler Did!” (neonazi.net).