Several swastikas were found at Georgina P. Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos before winter break. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Several swastikas were found at Georgina P. Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos before winter break. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Two Bay Area middle schools respond to Nazi salutes, graffiti 

A Jewish student and an Israeli American staff member at separate Bay Area middle schools were targeted with Nazi symbols and gestures before the start of winter break.

The incidents coincide with a spike in antisemitic outbursts in the Bay Area and worldwide, including at schools, since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel that started the ongoing war.

Earlier this month, a middle school student at the East Bay Innovation Academy’s Lower School, an independent, public charter school in Oakland for grades 6-8, was suspended for shouting “heil Hitler” and using the Nazi salute repeatedly at school, according to Efrat Rafaeli, who works part-time supervising the school’s after-school programs.

Rafaeli, an Israeli native who has worked there since the start of the school year, told J. that she reported the incident to school administrators on Dec. 13. She described supervising students who were doing homework that afternoon when a boy tried to get her attention by raising his hand to mimic the Nazi salute.

Alarmed, Rafaeli said, she asked what he was doing. He “laughed it off” and told her that he had only raised his hand, she said. Later that afternoon, during a dance class that Rafaeli was supervising and participating in, the same boy, seated nearby, raised his voice, shouting “heil Hitler” multiple times with his arm raised in the Nazi salute, Rafaeli said. She immediately reported him to the after-school supervisor and then to school administrators.

“The level of just trauma and trigger, and what it means,” Rafaeli said of her reaction to the incident. “That’s a call-out to kill us in the most atrocious, murderous way, and it’s completely inappropriate.”

She later learned from a teacher that the student had been disciplined earlier that day for using the Nazi salute in class, Rafaeli said.

The school opened an investigation the next day and then suspended the student, who is required to undergo diversity, equity and inclusion training before returning to class, Rafaeli said. She did not know the length of his suspension. Several teachers at the school used the incident to explain to students why such behavior is inappropriate, Rafaeli added.

The school’s top administrator declined to comment to J. about any incident regarding students.

“Due to student privacy, I cannot comment on any specifics related to student discipline regarding this or any other incident,” Miranda Thorman, executive director, told J. in an email.

At Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos, which serves seventh- and eighth-graders, a Jewish student found a swastika sketched in pen on his locker in the boys P.E. locker room on Dec. 15.

Five swastikas were found in total on lockers in the boys P.E. locker room that day, and two more were discovered on Dec. 19, likely drawn by the same individual, according to Sandra McGonagle, superintendent of the Los Altos School District. Some of the vandalized lockers were not assigned to any students.

“LASD will not tolerate antisemitism or hatred of any kind in our school community,” McGonagle said in an email sent to families districtwide on Dec. 18. “At our schools, we work to create an inclusive, safe, and welcoming space for every student, regardless of their background, beliefs, or ethnicity.”

The school’s administration contacted Los Altos police about the incident, and the graffiti has been removed from all lockers, Wade Spenader, Blach’s principal said in an email to families.

LASD will not tolerate antisemitism or hatred of any kind in our school community.

The school will be working with the Anti-Defamation League to host a workshop for students to learn how to confront bias, hate and discrimination, Spenader wrote.

“With the rise in hateful rhetoric throughout the world at this time, our staff is on high alert and ready to support our students, staff, and families,” Spenader wrote. School staff had previously participated in an ADL workshop that trained them on how to support students, he added.

Nationally, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 337% between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7, compared with the same period a year ago, according to the ADL.

Total reports of antisemitism across the Bay Area are second highest in the nation behind the New York Metro region, noted Marc Levine, director of the ADL’s Central Pacific region based in San Francisco.

“We’re responding to numerous school districts that are seeking support not just with students, but also with faculty and staff that need to learn a little bit about antisemitism,” he said.

Rafaeli, the after-school supervisor, said she agrees with the steps that the East Bay Innovation Academy took following her report. But she worries that the behavior is not an isolated incident.

“The kind of hate and vitriol is spreading. It’s spreading through the algorithm,” Rafaeli said, pointing to TikTok as a powerful influence on middle schoolers that she believes is fueling antisemitic behavior.

The platform ranks second behind YouTube in popularity among U.S. teens, the Pew Research Center reported last year.

According to the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society, TikTok’s efforts at content moderation using automated technology and human reviewers have fallen short. “Bad actors appear to be sidestepping TikTok’s moderation policies to spread antisemitic content,” ADL reported last month.

TikTok has also emerged as one of the primary online battlegrounds of public opinion over the Israel-Hamas war. Some Israel supporters fear the Jewish state is losing the so-called “TikTok war” among younger generations.

For Rafaeli, who has read about recent antisemitic incidents at Bay Area schools, nowhere in the region feels particularly welcoming right now.

“I don’t know where is the right place to be right now being Israeli American,” she said.

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.