Anti-Semitism on the Island
Jewish families say Alameda schools have failed to adequately address bigotry.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
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At first, Alameda High School freshman Natasha Waldorf thought the text message must have been sent by mistake. During her geometry class in January, a cartoon image of Mr. Clean dressed up as a Nazi officer with the words “Mr. Ethnic Cleansing” in bold red letters popped up on her phone, from an unknown phone number. It looked like someone’s idea of a terrible joke.
But then, the texts, copies of which were reviewed by the magazine, started to address her by name. Throughout the rest of school day, she received a flurry of denigrating texts, calling her a “kike,” admonishing Jews to get out of Hollywood, as well as those that threatened “get the gas” and expressing disappointment her family wasn’t killed in the Holocaust, with a text that read: “[Y]our family was one of the Fuhrer’s biggest failures.”
“I had no idea where they were coming from. I wasn’t sure if someone was out to get me or not,” said Natasha, who is now a sophomore. “I just couldn’t believe that someone could do something so cold-hearted.”
But those hateful texts are among what many say have been a troubling surge of bigoted and anti-Semitic incidents that have unnerved Jewish families throughout Alameda schools over the past year. According to school district records obtained via a public records’ request, swastikas have defaced a dumpster at Otis Elementary and the photo of a Jewish student on a bulletin board at Encinal Junior High. And at Otis Elementary, a Jewish fourth-grader also received inflammatory anti-Semitic comments and a death threat on a Google document that students used to comment on each other’s essay, while another student commented that “Hitler should have finished the job” in class.
Those incidents, coupled with vandalism of Temple Israel of Alameda a few days before the Aug. 21 start of the school year and flyers with swastikas and hate speech found on Sherman Street not long after in the city, have disheartened families and put a lot of the community on edge, said Natasha’s father, Mel Waldorf.
Mel Waldorf also said he’s troubled by the fact that school administrators often overlook anti-Semitic comments and epithets made by students. For instance, just three days after receiving the bullying texts, Natasha and a friend, who is also Jewish, overheard two other students also making crude jokes about the Holocaust in her drama class, she said. When her friend went to confront the boys, they responded, “Hitler should have finished the job,” said Natasha, who was also called “a kike” by another student. But according to the Waldorfs, the school’s administrators did not require the students to apologize.
Natasha also said that later in the 2016-17 school year, she saw a drawing on a school desk in the same class that read, “Jews are evil,” with a bunch of swastikas on it, a Star of David holding a money bag, and a swastika with a hammer trying to crush the Star of David. But at least in that instance, the student responsible was reprimanded and forced to apologize, she said.
And even though the student who sent the threatening text apologized after school officials called his parents about what happened, Natasha never received an apology from the student she said instigated the texts. She said that after she texted the student to ask why he would do that to her, he texted back, “then quit Judaism if you are bothered.” And he said, “you are threatened everywhere, realize it” and “deal with it,” and “it was all because of that little country of yours,” apparently referring to Israel.
For that reason, the Waldorf family members say that after months of inaction from the school district, they decided to file a formal complaint against Alameda Unified School District in August. The family also enlisted the help of the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America, which have written the district letters to assert that it has not fulfilled its legal obligation to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment under Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. They also are calling for changes in school policy so that administrators immediately intervene when anti-Semitic incidents occur and take the incidents.
Waldorf also said he believes Alameda schools Superintendent Sean McPhetridge should resign because of his lack of leadership on this issue. Waldorf said that despite the district’s pride in fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion through a highly touted “Everyone Belongs Here” campaign, McPhetridge “clearly doesn’t think anti-Semitism threats warrant any kind of serious action.”