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What I want the greater Tucson community to know about anti-Semitism

I would like to tell you a story. It was the last day of seventh grade. As snacks were eaten and yearbooks were passed around the room, I was content. I was looking forward to my second year at a Jewish summer camp in California, where I had the opportunity to thrive in a positive and supportive Jewish environment for nearly an entire month. Camp is one of my favorite places, and I would cry at the end of every summer when I had to go home. I would cry because I would have to wait an entire year before I could be in that environment again. However, I also had the amazing Tucson Jewish community to rely on. As I sat in that classroom, waiting for my yearbook to come back after a pass around the room, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of pride for my Jewishness, and my ability to openly express this facet of my identity. When I got my yearbook back I opened it up to a page smeared with red sharpie, and as I looked further, I saw the all too familiar mark of the Nazi party drawn across an entire page.

Even for a naive seventh-grader, the message was entirely clear.

I wish I could say this was the singular instance of hate that I experienced growing up as a Jewish American kid. My freshman year of high school it was one of my peers telling me, “Go back to the gas chambers, Jew boy.” That same year, it was my weekly youth group meeting disrupted by a bomb threat to the Tucson Jewish Community Center. The year after it was the swastika etched into my desk in math class, and the countless swastikas I see every time I go to the school bathroom. Soon after, it was the fear I felt deep in my core on Oct. 27, 2018, as I heard about the most devastating attack on American Jews in history, at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. My heart sank on April 27, 2019 as I heard news of another shooting at a synagogue in California, the synagogue of several of my friends from summer camp. And as I write this letter, I am forced to say that my gut churned again as I clicked through Snapchat stories on March 15. I saw a student from another local high school joyously yell about the swastika carved into the back of his hair, and turn around to reveal it to a room full of cheering students who were also happy to film it for the enjoyment of their social media followers.

To say I am hurt would be an understatement. I am outraged. Is this something I should get used to? Is it fine that my Snapchat is riddled with anti-Semitic hate? Why, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, is it okay that this hateful symbol is seen as a joke to countless individuals in this community — many of whom I have been acquainted with throughout my entire childhood?

I wrote to the administrators of that high school and to the Arizona Department of Education and the Board of Education, but my intention was not for these students to be punished. I hope that the administration — as well as the parents of these students — will take the actions they feel are justified and necessary. However, punishing these students does not address the underlying societal problem we are facing. This was not a party filled with anti-Semitic students; it was a party filled with ignorant students. The inherent truth is that these students live in a community and society that allows them to feel comfortable posting a video and celebrating symbols that perpetuate an idea of hatred, white supremacy, and genocide.

It is clear that this is not just one incident. The sentiment these students expressed manifests itself in many other forms. I have lived through it, and so has the entire Jewish community, locally and globally. It’s the “Jew jokes” I hear in the hallways at school. It’s my friends dropping coins on the floor and telling me to pick them up as they laugh at my expense. It’s the bomb threats to our JCC. It’s the metal detector I have to pass through to safely practice my religion during the holiest time of the Jewish year. It’s the security guard who has to stand outside of my synagogue as I walk into work every Sunday.

And yes, it’s the all too familiar mark of the Nazi party, drawn across the pages in my yearbook.

This ideology — this ignorance — is what damages our community. What normalizes this hatred to the extent that students feel comfortable openly expressing their ignorance on a public platform for thousands to see? As a Jewish teen, one who has grown up learning about what beliefs like this did to our people, I can’t stand for this. As a teen who has met Holocaust survivors — celebrated my community’s traditions with them, sang with them, laughed with them, and cried with them — I cannot allow this hate to exist around me. The greater Tucson community should not be ignorant of the pain and suffering these ideas foster. These students should not be ignorant of the dark history their actions bring to light.

Has it been so long since the Holocaust that we forget what the swastika represents? Have we forgotten that it represents that systematic persecution that caused the death of millions of people? Millions of my people? Millions of Jews, Poles, homosexuals, disabled people, Slavs, and countless others? It seems like these students have forgotten that it represents over 6 million innocent Jewish men, women, and children robbed of their lives because of ignorant beliefs.

To defend their friends, many of my peers will say I am overreacting. That it isn’t that big of a deal. That they were just drunk. Part of me feels like I should give these students the benefit of the doubt. I know these students, and I know they are not avowed anti-Semites or Holocaust deniers. However, I do know that they are ignorant. And somewhere beneath their ignorance, there is some amount of hate. I know their ignorance is perpetuated by the lack of education around these topics in the state of Arizona. These students — and every student — need to understand the implications of bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hate. And I feel that this can only be accomplished through proper education mandated by the State of Arizona and all schools.

To those students who say that I am taking this too far, I say that you are missing my point entirely. I say that you are showing, once again, the ignorance that exists in our community and society about the devastating effects of these anti-Semitic beliefs. I’m not just another Jewish kid who is offended by everything. My family died because of that symbol. My friend’s families died because of that symbol. My people died because of that symbol. It isn’t just some joke; though I am no longer a naive seventh-grader, the message is still entirely clear.

I hope the Arizona Department of Education and the Board of Education can work alongside the Jewish student population in Arizona to educate our community and peers about the societal repercussions for the hatred they express. I hope the Arizona House of Representatives and State Senate will pass a bill that not only supports, but mandates, genocide and Holocaust education in our public schools. To the greater community in Tucson, I hope that you will help me ensure that no student forgets the harmful effects of even the smallest symbols of hatred and actions of ignorance.

Editor’s note: State Rep. Alma Hernandez sponsored a bill that would make Holocaust education mandatory in Arizona middle and high schools. The House of Representatives passed the bill, but the Senate has not yet voted on it. For more information, see https://azjewishpost.com/2020/new-bill-proposes-mandatory-holocaust-education-in-all-arizona-school-districts.

Gabe Friedman is a high school junior in Tucson.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AJP or its publisher, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.