When is a Swastika a Joke?

I know what you're thinking. A Swastika is never a joke. 

Except maybe when it's on a cupcake. When it's drawn by 14-year-old girls who thought they were being funny.


Delivering Bad News to Jewish Teenagers

Tonight I taught Hebrew High at my synagogue. The topic: A brief history of Anti-Semitism. We talked about the currrent mood in the country, and they shared some disturbing instances of anti-Semitism in their schools.

First, I was heartened to find out that these kids (who are Jewish 8th, 9th, and 10th graders) could not name more than a few negative Jewish stereotypes. When I asked them to brainstorm, they came up with "big noses" and "penny-pinching, cheap and greedy" on their own, but were unaware of the supposed Jewish conspiracy to control the banks, the media, and Hollywood, and they'd never heard of the blood libel

They were shocked to learn some people believe Jews have horns (and sometimes tails!), we had been blamed for the killing of Jesus and the Black Plague, or that Jews were expelled from England, France, and Spain.  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were a complete mystery to them,  and their only connection to the Pogroms of Russia was the end of  "Fiddler on the Roof". 

I almost felt guilty telling them all of the terrible things that the Jews have suffered over the past 1,000 years. Of lifting the veil. 

But then I remembered that a classmate of my daughter called someone a "Dirty Jew" last week, and another child has had pennies thrown at him in the hall. And that someone painted this on the door of an elementary school in Denver, not all that far from here; 

Our children, our Jewish children, must know that this kind of hate does not have its origins in the Trump campaign, or with the Nazis, or with the Pogroms. Anti-Semitism is built upon a vast, long, and complicated foundation.

The Cupcake
I presented the story of the cupcake in two ways.

Version One: A-14-year old Jewish girl had a birthday party last week, and her friends, who had just learned about the Holocaust, decorated one of the cupcakes with a Swastika.

Their reactions:
"Are you sure they were her friends?"
"I would have punched them."
"Did she make them leave?"
"I bet they're not her friends anymore."

Version Two: A 14-year-old Jewish girl had a birthday part last week and her friends, who had just learned about the Holocaust, thought it would be funny to decorate one of the cupcakes with a Swastika.

Their reactions this time:
"Yeah. Not funny."
"That's different."
"So they weren't doing it to be mean, or hateful. They're just stupid."
"Friends do things like that sometimes. I mean, it's not OK, but it happens."

They had no intention of letting the Swastika-drawing girls off the hook entirely, but they were able to see the crucial difference between my two stories: intent. The intent was for the Swastika to be a joke. An ill-fated joke, and one the girls at the party didn't think through, but a joke nonetheless. 

Through The Children's Eyes
This story received national attention because the mom of the birthday girl wrote a long post about it on Facebook. (You can read the full story here). She linked the cupcake to the current political climate, and she wondered, "Are the lids to human kindness and decency ripped off so permanently that this can happen to YOUR kid in YOUR house?"

My students were not at all surprised that the mom had this kind of reaction and the birthday girl (apparently) didn't. They were willing, once they heard the intent, to give the benefit of the doubt. To see that the act was insensitive but not hateful. To forgive a mistake.

Would they continue to be friends with the Swastika-drawing girls? Yes. If the girls were made to understand why this wasn't a way to joke around, how hurtful it could have been, and what the symbol really represented. My students were absolutely sure that, once they were informed, the girls would never repeat such an act.

I think they're right.

Not Every Swastika is Created Equal
In a follow-up post, the mother reported that the girls had apologized. The mom was clear: "This was not a hate crime," but she was still "pissed off" that it happened. I don't blame her for her anger, and I'm glad she was able to recognize the difference between a hateful act and an act of ignorance that used a hateful symbol. I'm glad my students were able to see the difference as well.

The Anti-Defamation League, in their "Strategies to Confront Bias," suggests the following:
Try to assume good will. Many people who make offensive remarks do so out of ignorance. Because they do not intend harm, they often assume no harm is done.
Should we assume good will of the person who spray painted the Swastika on a school?
Of course not.

Should we assume good will of the kids who throw pennies in the hall, or call another student a "Dirty Jew"? 
No. They are obviously out to bully, but I think it's fair to assume a fair bit of ignorance and to approach these kids as educators and, more important, recognize that they can be educated. 

I'd love the chance to talk to those girls who decorated the cupcake. 
To approach them without blame and with empathy.
To see what was going through their heads when they passed that cupcake to their Jewish friend.
To ask how they feel now.
To encourage them to move forward without shame, and to speak up when they see other friends "joking" in the same way.
To give them the tools to pass on the tough lesson learned.

A Swastika is never a joke... but not everyone knows that. 
Let's teach them.


Anonymous said...

Good evening. I really liked your blog post on the cupcake incident, especially since I am the mom of the daughter to which this happened. I would like to point out that many of the press items were written off of not only my Facebook post, but what others shared off of it. I do want to share when actual journalists contacted me, I indeed emphasized that this wasn't politcally or hate motivated but standard thoughtless teenager stuff. The Huff Post updated their story with my comments including the following:

She told HuffPost by email, “It’s hard enough being a teen, then to have all this snowball over what I consider an ‘insensitive teenage moment.’ I stand behind my posts[,] just hated seeing them spread around and have people turning it into a Trump v Hillary thing.”

Thank you for sharing the story. It's very important to stand up for right and wrong, but also realize that the wrong might be coming from a 14 year old kid who just didn't think.

Peace, Deborah

GoldaLeah said...

Thank you, Deborah for getting in touch and your kind words about the post. I know that visceral reaction of, "someone hurt my child" and you've responded to the entire situation so well. My own daughter is 13. I think I had forgotten how insensitive and even cruel we were at that age. And how a little education goes much further than a lot of punishment.

I'm glad the Huffington Post updated the article. I know I saw it shared many times by my own Jewish family and friends, and the reactions were less about teen insensitivity than politics and anti-Semitism and hate crimes. I just wanted to slow it down for a minute.

Peace to you as well. Shabbat Shalom.