Anti-Semitic incidents disrupt Silicon Valley’s Jewish community

Anti-Semitic incidents disrupt Silicon Valley’s Jewish community

Local organizations and clergy concerned about bias in schools in ethnically diverse and affluent part of Bay Area

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Israeli start-up entrepreneurs at work at UpWest Lab's Silicon Valley facility (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli start-up entrepreneurs at work at UpWest Lab's Silicon Valley facility (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The publication of a slight against a Jewish student in a Cupertino, California, high school yearbook has brought to light what some see as an uptick in anti-Semitism among Silicon Valley youth.

A student planted an insult against a student from a Jewish Israeli family in a caption beneath a team photo in the Monta Vista High School yearbook. The student’s changing the last three letters of the Israeli classmate’s name to “jew” went unnoticed by the yearbook advisor.

According to a report in the San Jose Mercury News, the school has not acquiesced to the Jewish family’s request that the run of 1,600 yearbooks be recalled, claiming that it is too late now that they have been distributed to students and have been filled with handwritten messages from friends and classmates. The Fremont Union High School District paid $64,000 to produce the yearbooks, and they were sold to students at $90 apiece.

The school district, asserting that it does not tolerate any kind of racial slur and promising to discipline the offending student, brought in the police to investigate. While prosecutors called the incident “extremely disturbing,” they are unlikely to file hate crime charges because the student did not threaten the Jewish classmate, vandalize property or commit a violent act.

Neither the name of the student who changed the yearbook caption nor that of the student who was his target have been published because they are both minors.

It appears that forward-thinking, economically booming Silicon Valley, home to an ethnically and religiously diverse population (including upwards of 40,000 Israelis) is not immune to the types of anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents that have made headlines elsewhere in the country.

The yearbook incident was reported just a week after eighth graders at a Chicago public school were suspended as part of an investigation of anti-Semitic bullying via an online game, and a month after it was discovered that middle-school teachers elsewhere in California had asked their students to write essays on whether the Holocaust was “an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme.”

“While we do track numbers of incidents and attitudes, we don’t segment for smaller areas, like Silicon Valley,” said Seth Brysk, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s San Francisco-based Central Pacific region office, who had been made aware of the Monta Vista High School case before it was reported in the media.

Congregation Kol Emeth's Rabbi Laurie Matzkin wants to address an uptick in anti-Semitism encountered by Silicon Valley's Jewish students. (Courtesy)
Congregation Kol Emeth’s Rabbi Laurie Matzkin wants to address an uptick in anti-Semitism encountered by Silicon Valley’s Jewish students. (Courtesy)

“But bullying is a serious problem. These incidents do take place,” Brysk emphasized.

Regardless of whether the offending student really does dislike Jews, some contend that there is not enough being done to educate young people on how to live in an increasingly diverse community.

“We have this fabulous diversity but we haven’t done much to help kids cope with it,” Diane Fisher, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, was quoted as saying. “Yet we know that even mildly offensive incidents can build and poison the entire atmosphere.”

Rabbi Laurie Matzkin, director of lifelong learning at Congregation Kol Emeth in nearby Palo Alto, is disappointed that local public schools are leaving religious tolerance out of their anti-bullying curricula. “Anecdotally, I am hearing a lot more frustration, pain and outrage from our young Jewish members and their parents,” she told The Times of Israel.

One Jewish student, displeased with the limited scope of programming for one of the Palo Alto high school’s “Not In Our School” week, forwarded an email about it to the rabbi. “There was lots of programming about discrimination based on race and sexual orientation or identity scheduled, but none dealing with anti-Semitism,” she noted.

In speaking with her congregation’s school-age members, and even informally surveying them using a web tool, Matzkin found that throughout Silicon Valley, Jewish students are being taunted with “cheap Jew” stereotypes and are being subjected to Holocaust jokes.

“I haven’t heard of any bullying related to Israel or of any physical violence,” she noted. “It’s more incidences of kids deliberately dropping coins in front of Jewish students or making comments about Jews and money.”

Jewish students are also being directly told or are overhearing jokes other students make about the Holocaust. One example: What’s the difference between Auschwitz and Boy Scout camp? You come home from Boy Scout camp.

Matzkin recounted that when one Jewish girl mentioned she was going to a Jewish camp, the person she was speaking to responded, “Auschwitz?”

Are young people being exposed to these anti-Semitic stereotypes and jokes by their parents, or from social media?

Matzkin said there is no definitive answer at this point. She is, however, using the arrival this summer of a new superintendent for the Palo Alto Unified School District as an opportunity to partner with the district to educate students about anti-Semitism.

“We planning, with the support of the ADL and the JCRC, to open a dialogue on this with the schools,” she said.

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