Mt. Eden High School teacher Paul Maciel speaks out against fellow teacher Henry Bens at the March 8, 2023 Hayward Unified School District board meeting, while holding a copy of "The Hidden Tyranny," a hoax antisemitic text Bens taught in class at Mt. Eden. (Screenshot)
Mt. Eden High School teacher Paul Maciel speaks out against fellow teacher Henry Bens at the March 8, 2023 Hayward Unified School District board meeting, while holding a copy of "The Hidden Tyranny," a hoax antisemitic text Bens taught in class at Mt. Eden. (Screenshot)

‘Why is nothing being done?’ Tensions high after suspension of Hayward teacher who taught antisemitic lessons

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At a meeting of the Hayward Unified School District school board on Wednesday, a speaker walked up to the podium holding a copy of “The Hidden Tyranny,” an antisemitic hoax document.

“Why is nothing being done?” asked Paul Maciel, a Spanish teacher at Mt. Eden High School. “Why is this still in circulation? Why is this physically on our campus?”

Maciel was one of many staff members and students who stood before the school board to voice anger and dissatisfaction about how the case of English teacher Henry Bens, who distributed “The Hidden Tyranny” as a class assignment in mid-December, has been handled. Bens was placed on leave at the end of February.

“Mt. Eden is hurting,” said Carrie King, who is both a parent and a teacher at the school. “When it actually matters, hate speech has been disseminated, and HUSD anti-racist anti-bias policies have become just talk. Without any accountability, it’s empty.”

Bens used “The Hidden Tyranny,” which purports to show how Jews manipulate world events, as teaching material during a Holocaust unit. He was first reported to school administration around Dec. 16, but more than two months passed before he was placed on leave, a delay that members of the community found frustrating.

“You have to tell us what the process is that you followed to fix this, because as far as anyone can tell, nothing happened for two months,” David Felix Rogers, a senior who had Bens as a sophomore and said he saw antisemitic behavior from him then, told the board. “You ignored teachers when they told you this was happening. You ignored students.”

When Mt. Eden students returned after a weeklong break on Feb. 27, Bens was no longer in the classroom. But students told J. his absence led to divisions between students who oppose Bens and those who support him. Meanwhile, teachers are still making public their dismay over how long it took school officials to act.

That topic dominated public comment at Wednesday’s school board meeting, where a number of teachers from Mt. Eden and other schools wore blue as a show against antisemitism. One of them was Martin Canizales Cobos, another Spanish teacher at Mt. Eden.

“I’m not Jewish,” he said. “But I learned that in Jewish culture the color blue represents protection.”

After public comment, board members made statements in support of the teachers and students who spoke. Board member Ken Rawdon, a former Mt. Eden teacher, was almost brought to tears, while board member Joe Ramos discussed his family background.

“My heart goes out to the Jewish community, my Jewish friends,” he said. “My Jewish grandmother would be rolling in her grave.”

But not all board members shared the same sentiments. Sara Prada put the focus on the pain of other groups, such as Black and Native students, and said she looked forward to the day when all genocides were treated as horrible crimes, and when the school investigated all teachers who “celebrate genocidal monsters and their manifestos.”

“For example, the document that advocated genocide of Native American people by racist, enslaving pedophiles, like Thomas Jefferson: the Declaration of Independence,” she said. “Also, let’s cover a murderer who actively contributed to the genocide of African people, George Washington, and a document that was used to commit genocide against black people, the U.S. Constitution.”

Other speakers voiced support for Bens.

“I will not condone what was happening, but I do know this teacher personally. He is a very passionate teacher, and what I think is he’s been laid out to just dry by himself, and it’s not OK,” one parent told the board.

African American man speaking into a microphone
Henry Bens delivering a sermon at Congregation Rehoboth in Alameda on Oct. 29, 2022. (Photo/Screenshot-@biblesvoice)

The climate at school is tense, students said.

Ruchita Verma
Ruchita Verma

“A lot of people are a little bit confused and frazzled,” said Ruchita Verma, a senior who graduates this spring.

Although she hasn’t taken Bens’ class, Verma is one of the student leaders who has spoken out to the administration. She addressed the board at last month’s meeting as well as at the March 8 meeting, both times advocating for action from the district.

“I was heavily disappointed in our administration, to the extent that it made me feel hurt,” she told J.

Myldret Vasquez, a sophomore in Bens’ class, told J. that the situation at school was “messy.” She said some students believe what he told them; others think he’s been picked on for his race (Bens is Black; at Mt. Eden the student body is around 58% Hispanic, 25% Asian, 8% Black and 4% white).

“I think they felt it was motivated by race in a way,” she said, adding that some students spoke of complaints they’d made about non-Black teachers that didn’t get media attention.

Vasquez said students from Bens’ class were invited to participate in a restorative justice activity and that she joined the activity to offer some balance after she saw the participants were mostly defenders of Bens.

“They don’t understand how that text is antisemitic,” Vasquez said. “They said they read it, and they don’t understand there’s anything wrong with it.”

Julie Greenfield remains worried about the students.

“There’s been damage done, and it’s not going to be an easy fix,” she said.

Greenfield is a former school nurse who currently works as a substitute nurse for HUSD. She’s also Jewish and heard about the incident through her community at Shir Ami, a Reform synagogue in Castro Valley. Also active in the local interfaith council, Greenfield immediately reached out to the teachers she knew at Mt. Eden.

There’s been damage done, and it’s not going to be an easy fix.

While there are few Jewish students at the school, there are some Jewish teachers who are feeling uncomfortable and “under attack,” according to Greenfield.

“Apparently last week there were at least a couple of incidents where kids were giving the heil Hitler salute,” she added.

Bens, who has been teaching at Mt. Eden for 10 years, is also pastor of a church in Alameda where he preaches a doctrine influenced by Black Israelism. The spiritual movement is grounded in the idea that Black people are the authentic genealogical descendants of the ancient Israelites. Bens believes that Jewish people are not, in fact, real Jews but rather imposters; he calls his church a synagogue, uses Hebrew terms (including Torah, parashah and Shabbat) and sometimes is seen wearing tzitzit in photos on the congregation’s Facebook page.

Bens streamed a video sermon on March 5, subsequent to being placed on leave.

“We’re not going to run, we’re not going to hide from the enemy,” he said. “But we’re going to give to the Lord all of our praise, the glory, the honor. We’re going to give Him everything that He deserves.”

At the board meeting, Bens’ daughter Zoe, a senior at Mt. Eden, made public comments, as did her mother, who said their daughter had moved to independent study to avoid the tensions.

Zoe said the public nature of the outcry made her anxious and uncomfortable, and blamed Mt. Eden teachers.

“None of them has even apologized for the way they’ve made me feel,” she said. “They’ve talked about it on campus, it’s been discussed when they shouldn’t. It’s something that kids shouldn’t be discussing. If they want to discuss it, do it off campus.”

But teachers say it has to be discussed in the classroom.

History teacher Martha Perez was among those who reported the document to school administration in December. Perez teaches some of the same students who are in Bens’ class and said she was shocked when she saw it.

A student's annotated homework on "The Hidden Tyranny," an antisemitic conspiracy text assigned by Mt. Eden High School teacher Henry Bens.
A student’s annotated homework on “The Hidden Tyranny,” an antisemitic conspiracy text assigned by Mt. Eden High School teacher Henry Bens.

“I never thought I’d see antisemitism” in the Bay Area, she admitted. “I guess I’m a little naive.”

During the two months that followed, Perez said, students would bring Bens’ behaviors up in her class, reporting that he was accusing other teachers of lying about history.

It was clear, she said, that the document was not being presented as a talking point, shown as an example of bias, or used to illustrate propaganda. It was being taught as the truth, and that made it dangerous, in her mind.

“It feels legitimate to them,” she said about the students in his class. “Because they learned it in school.”

The Anti-Defamation League has been meeting with the school district since the incidents were first reported in December, according to Teresa Drenick, deputy regional director for the ADL’s Central Pacific region.

On March 7, HUSD interim superintendent Chien Wu-Fernandez sent a letter to school district staff.

“In moving forward, the students in the impacted classes will be provided lessons that were recommended by the ADL to support the education of the students on the true story of the Jewish people,” she wrote. “Student leaders and staff are also planning activities to reaffirm the message of no tolerance for hate.”

Meanwhile, the entire school community continues to cope with the fallout.

“It’s been difficult,” Perez said. “You want to be professional, you want to give people the benefit of the doubt.” But there is no doubt here, she said. “He’s teaching them antisemitism.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.