Antisemitic vandalism prompts Ga. students to send new message

Tribune Content Agency

MARIETTA, Ga. — Pope High senior Hannah Foster was shocked when she heard a classmate defend the actions of students who vandalized the school bathrooms with antisemitic graffiti during the high Jewish holidays last school year.

It was about a year after the event rocked the community. Foster, who is Jewish, couldn’t believe anyone could find what happened to be funny.

“I was so disgusted,” she said. “If there’s a student this year telling me that the actions of the students last year were fine and OK, then clearly there’s a disconnect.”

Foster decided to act.

She met with her principal and organized the school’s participation in the worldwide Daffodil Project. It endeavors to plant flowers to represent the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. She participated in the project through her synagogue, and remembered its impact. She got members of the school’s Key Club, of which she’s president, and her friends in other clubs to participate. More than 30 students planted 250 flowers in front of the school this year.

“Nobody else was doing anything about it, and I had the power and capability to do so,” Foster said. “It’s a really great way for our school to make up, potentially, for some of the actions that occurred.”

Foster was joined by other student leaders this month at a dedication ceremony for the project, in which they encouraged their peers to take a stand.

“Whatever your religion and background, it’s up to all of us to stand against hate in all forms,” said Rachel Green, president of the Jew Crew. The Jewish student organization contributed rocks to the small garden, painted with the names of some of the children who died in the Holocaust.

The planting is one of several actions taken this school year by students to address antisemitism.

Later that same day, the drama department premiered “The Sound of Music,” which depicts a family fleeing Austria to avoid Nazis. It’s not a first for the school — but this year it was prefaced with a message from school and religious leaders, encouraging people to stand against the type of hate portrayed in the play.

Senior Sofia Hargis, who played Mother Abbess in the play, said students worked hard in rehearsals to be cognizant of the history of the time they were portraying. Hargis and the cast wanted to ensure the performance reflected how seriously they took their roles. It was a way to send a new message about Pope High after the vandalism through their performances, she said.

“It shows how the student body is making a bigger effort to change the narrative of Pope High right now,” Hargis said.

‘An ongoing problem’

After the graffiti was found at Pope High last school year, similar imagery was found at Lassiter High. The Cobb school board passed a resolution in October 2021 against antisemitism. The district had previously stopped using the Anti-Defamation League’s anti-bullying curriculum called No Place for Hate, which members of the community have asked it to reinstate. A few months later, some middle school students were disciplined for displaying antisemitic imagery on social media. A Cobb elementary school halted the rollout of a new logo last July after people pointed out it looked like a Nazi emblem.

“For a school system to see these kinds of incidents, it’s very disturbing, it’s very troubling and it’s something that school systems need to get ahead of,” said Eytan Davidson, the Southeast regional director for the ADL. “That said, it’s not unique to Cobb County.”

Acts of antisemitism have been on the rise both locally and nationally. The ADL tracked 75 antisemitic incidents in Georgia in 2022, up from 49 in 2021. Last month, antisemitic flyers were distributed in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. The spread of white supremacist propaganda was at an all-time high nationally in 2022, the ADL reported.

State lawmakers are taking up the issue this year: A bill that would legally define antisemitism and make it easier for officials to identify and prosecute hate crimes was approved this month by the Georgia House of Representatives.

The Pope High students remember short lessons about the Holocaust in elementary and middle school — but they also remember times when their peers have made fun of the Holocaust or used offensive symbols.

Rabbi Larry Sernovitz at Temple Kol Emeth, a few miles from Pope High, said he hears regularly about students in Cobb County using the Nazi salute, about Jewish students being threatened or experiencing other acts he suspects are born of ignorance.

“Unfortunately, this is an ongoing problem,” he said. “The school district has not really taken it upon themselves to do the education that is necessary.”

The Cobb County School District said in a statement that it’s important that schools are safe and welcoming to all students.

“No matter how few or isolated, we do not tolerate any form of hate, including antisemitism,” the statement said.

A lasting effect

The students who vandalized Pope and Lassiter high schools last year were disciplined, the district said. District leaders have said that means their system is working. But students’ experiences in school have made them want to address antisemitism themselves.

Josh Leibowitz, a senior and a member of the Jew Crew, cut ties with a friend whom he caught vandalizing a bathroom. The club has grown as they took on other tasks, like cleaning classrooms and meeting with faculty to advocate for Jewish students.

Things, he said, have gotten better.

“I still think that in general it shouldn’t have been up to the students telling each other that drawing antisemitic stuff on the wall in a bathroom is not a cool thing,” he said. “I’m glad that the students did take charge, but I feel like they shouldn’t have had to.”

A spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that Cobb has developed a program based on state standards “which encourages students to work together, regardless of their differences.” She did not provide additional details about the program.

“We are proud of the Pope students who felt empowered by school leadership and supported by community stakeholders to make a difference in their community,” the statement said.

Leibowitz was skeptical when he heard about the school’s drama department showcasing “The Sound of Music.” He wasn’t confident that using Nazi imagery would be worth the risk of inciting more antisemitism at the school. But after seeing it, he was pleased.

“I thought it was great how they did it,” he said. “I think they were very respectful.”

As people filed into the Pope High auditorium on opening night to watch the play, a video encouraging everyone to stand against hate played on the stage. Many talked through the video, more concerned with finding a good seat. But others were listening.

Outside the school, the yellow petals of the daffodils will be gone in a few weeks. But Foster hopes they’ll bloom again for years to come, as a reminder.

“It’s not something that is just done once, but it’s something that happens over and over again,” she said. “And that way, it’s kind of kept in the back of their minds, to remember to be supportive and to help in the community.”