By Ellie Gottesman
As a Jewish student, I want to provide some context for the strong reactions many people have had over a recently published photograph of two students engaging in a Nazi salute. More than that, I want to suggest a path forward to educate and heal.
For modern Jews, the Holocaust is a defining cultural event.
The reason pictures of Nazi symbols drive such intense reactions is not only because the Nazis murdered six million people for the non-crime of being Jewish (Nazis also persecuted Romanis, LGBTQ+, blacks and the physically disabled), but also because so many “good” people stood by and did nothing.
The camps were not all in remote places; many ghettos and work camps were in the middle of villages where everyday people carried on their daily routines. Nazi symbols are a reminder not just of the Nazi-perpetuated genocide, but also of all those normal, good people in otherwise ordinary communities who did not take action to keep their neighbors safe.
My first reaction upon seeing the picture was disbelief and anger. I know those students. I know their families. How could they poke fun at something so diabolical, especially in a community like Mercer Island with such a large Jewish population?
That anger, however, has given way to compassion. I did not, and do not, believe the two students pictured are Nazi supporters. I do not believe they meant to cause harm or anguish.
I also think these students have already been punished harshly. The reaction on social media has been unforgiving, with comments on Facebook like “[m]aybe those offending fingers should be shoved up the little Neo-Nazis nostrils” and “[t]hese two ******** deserve to know what it feels like to be under the oppression of the Nazis and their monstrous leader.”
I also understand that members of our community have threatened these students with violence. One of the students has even received a death threat. Those reactions are unconscionable.
I do not think we should just move on as if nothing happened, but I feel strongly that we should move on from focusing on and castigating these students who realize they were wrong and are now asking for forgiveness. We now have an opportunity to show compassion and educate ourselves about anti-Semitism and hate speech more broadly. I hope we take this moment to reflect about these important issues as a high school community, both in larger groups and individual classrooms.
The high school administration has encouraged constructive conversations to take place in our English classes on March 11, which is a great start. During BRIDGES on Wednesday, March 13, a group of students is leading a Unity Assembly to tackle discrimination, anti-Semitism, hate speech and the issues that surround these difficult-to-discuss topics.
The path forward is proactively communicating with each other, even when it’s hard — especially when it’s hard. I am grateful that our school is taking the first step to healing. I exhort all our readers to be their best selves at a time that calls us to come together with courage, honesty, compassion and forgiveness.
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