Increase in Swastika Graffiti in Marin

By Elissa Asch

Over the last few months the Marin community has experienced a sharp increase in anti-Semitic behavior. This behavior includes the drawing of five swastikas found at Tam, Mill Valley Middle School, the Mill Valley Community Center (MVMS), and the Safeway parking lot.

“The Safeway incident involved a red swastika applied to the top of a pillar in the parking lot,” Sergeant Steven Heisinger, who is assigned to the Investigations Division of the Mill Valley Police Department (MVPD) said. “It is believed the swastika was made with blood, but we don’t know this to be factual. Other means have included carving with a knife, scraping with a rock, spraying with spray paint and even the organizing of magnets on a magnetic board in a classroom,”

The vandalism that occurred at Tam involved two swastikas drawn in chalk outside classroom 2020, and was detailed in an email sent out by Principal J.C. Farr on December 12.

“We are treating this incident as hate-motivated behavior and will discipline any student found to be responsible to the fullest extent possible, up to and including expulsion,” Farr’s email stated. The email urged students with any information regarding the graffiti to contact the school.

Though each incident was investigated by the MVPD, no official suspects have been identified and no arrests have been made.

“These appear to be acts of malicious mischief/vandalism performed by one or more individuals,” Heisinger said. “None of the five Mill Valley incidents are prosecutable at this point.  No suspects [or specific victims] were identified.”

The recent graffiti reflects current national trends. “The five recent incidents do indicate a spike in such activity at the local level, [which] seems consistent with similar incidents throughout the county, state and nation,” Heisinger said.

Junior and Republican Gage Gohl speculated that the increase in anti-Semitic graffiti may be tied to the recent presidential election. “It’s maybe a kind of resentment against what was the status quo and is now completely different boiling up to the surface,” he said. “[Conservatives] have been demonized [and] it…kind of goes inwards, then kind of ferments I would say, and then when they can finally release it it comes out in this not really violent but aggressive gush.”

According to Gohl this smothering environment of liberalism, especially in such progressive communities like Marin County, has a negative effect on those who don’t subscribe to liberal beliefs. “You kind of just feel as if you are a bad person if you hold conservative views here…and you internalize it, as humans do.” Gohl said.

The police couldn’t confirm any specific motives behind these instances. “It could be one kid doing something stupid or it could be a wave of kids that are having these strong feelings in the wake of the political atmosphere,” History teacher and baseball coach Nathan Bernstein said.

But even if Jewish students aren’t in any real danger, some students and teachers confirmed that there is a climate of anti-Semitism on campus, especially when it comes to Jewish jokes. Bernstein has had experience with Jewish jokes at Tam. “I was talking to one of my players who was Jewish…I asked him how many Jewish jokes do you hear a day and he said about seven to ten, and that’s pretty high…and then there are common Holocaust jokes that go around Jewish kids, so I asked how many times do you hear that, and he says once every other day,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein was clear that he believes the root behind these comments to be a lack of historical context. “A lot of [jewish] stereotypes were built to dehumanize Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, to create that hatred and that’s how such a horrible event happened. So when someone makes fun of a Jew for having a big nose, those were charcatures that was propaganda that Hitler put out there to make Jews seems less than human. Because whenever you make someone less than human then you can do terrible things to them,” he explained. “So I think when kids have that historical context that these little slights can turn into huge behavior, I hope it helps.”

Junior David Fineman who is Jewish thought that not only are Jewish jokes common, but on the rise. “I think that [Jewish jokes] are becoming a lot more popular nowadays, and it’s becoming a big problem,” he said.

However, there were also students that didn’t consider anti-Semitism an issue at Tam. “I have never experienced anti-Semitism myself but I can’t speak for the entire population,” said junior Zoe Wortzman. “I’m Jewish and I have some Jewish friends at Tam, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about it really.”

Tam isn’t the only school that has to address anti-Semitism though. The eighth grade class at MVMS has experienced a recent increase in anti-Semitic behavior and hate speech as well. An eighth grader who requested anonymity for fear of retribution recounted a story that took place in the last few months. “One day kids were writing symbols and words on their wrists and faces in marker, they drew swastikas on themselves and other people and wrote ‘gas the Jews’…some people didn’t know what was going to be wrote on them, because people were like do you want to join my club?…and then they would draw [a swastika] on their face,” he said. According to an email sent out by superintendent Paul Johnson, MVMS has taken steps to combat these instances such as inviting a Holocaust survivor to speak at the school.

There is a proper way to confront these jokes, according to Bernstein. “Students can work on challenging each other…but also the perspective of not jumping down someone’s throat when they make a mistake,” he said. “I start with a Malcolm X quote: ‘Don’t be too quick to judge people that don’t think or do like you. There was a time you didn’t know what you know now’…because maybe a kid is making really dumb Jewish jokes because no one took the time to stop and have a conversation with him about why that’s offensive.”

Principal Farr also put an emphasis on education and discussion as a solution. “We are going to have meetings to discuss how we can increase awareness…so over the next few weeks we may have speakers come in and talk to classes just so there’s more of an emphasis on the increase in hate crimes that we’ve seen. I always want to start with education,” he said.