“There’s a swastika in the bathroom,” says a high school senior casually as he walks into my classroom at the beginning of the seventh period; “it’s carved into the toilet paper dispenser.” After the class begins working on the day’s lesson, I walk down to the bathroom and snap a photo with my phone camera. Hardly the first, this is just the latest in a rash of swastika graffiti drawn and carved in the boys’ bathrooms at the small school where I teach high school social studies in rural south-central Wisconsin. As a community, we are struggling to understand why swastikas keep appearing in the bathrooms, and, more importantly, we are struggling to respond to this hate speech.
Why do swastikas keep appearing in the boys’ bathrooms?
In a reflection activity that I conducted in my classroom regarding this latest incident of swastika hate graffiti, many students suggested that the swastikas are being drawn by kids who are either “just trying to be funny” or simply “do not understand what a swastika means.”
Although most students want to minimize or dismiss the hate speech as juvenile pranks, one sophomore, in response to a reflection prompt asking why swastikas keep appearing in the boys’ bathrooms, wrote: “I think that there are more Jewish students in the school than we know about and they are drawing them.” This statement, suggesting that Jewish students are drawing and carving swastikas, is not simply an innocent misunderstanding; rather, it is part of a set of antisemitic myths that also claim that Jews caused the Holocaust. A recent study found that such beliefs are growing and are held by one in ten Americans under forty. This statement also reflects the pervasive and stubborn antisemitic beliefs of the predominantly white, working-class community in which the school is located.
Similar to the students, many of my colleagues minimize the repeated appearance of hate graffiti, dismiss the idea of punitive measures if the culprits of the swastika carvings were to be identified, and, instead, talk about the need for more education, specifically Holocaust education. “This is a learning opportunity,” they insist. I’m not sure that I agree that Holocaust education alone offers a solution.
Despite having only a small number of Jewish families and teachers in the community, Holocaust education is a widely respected mainstay of the curricula and educational experience in the middle school and high school.
By the time they are high school seniors, my students have likely studied the Holocaust seven times across their mandatory middle and secondary Social Studies and English Language Arts classes: 5th-grade Social Studies; 6th-grade English; 8th-grade Social Studies and English; 10th-grade Social Studies and English; and 11th-grade Social Studies. By their junior year of high school, most have read Number the Stars, The Diary of Anne Frank, Letters from Rifka, The Book Thief, and Night. Most have traveled to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. or the Illinois Holocaust Museum and heard survivors or survivor-descendants speak.
Indeed, a recent study conducted by Claims Conference revealed that Wisconsin Millennials and Gen Zers (current high school students are part of Gen Z) scored highest in Holocaust awareness in the United States. My students are no exception; they display a basic understanding of the Holocaust.
While my students have studied the Holocaust, especially the murder of European Jewry at Auschwitz-Birkenau, multiple times over their educational careers, I have found that they rarely learn about European or Nazi antisemitism (and even less about American antisemitism) in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Indeed, in preparation for a unit on the Holocaust in my tenth-grade World History course, many students still do not understand why the Nazis and their collaborators targeted and murdered the Jews of Germany and Europe. “I don’t understand; why did the Nazis hate the Jews?” is a common question. Many students struggle even to recognize or define the term “antisemitism.”
While the lack of understanding of antisemitism certainly suggests a need to evaluate the scope and sequence and, especially, the content of Holocaust education in the school, I am not convinced that even the best Holocaust education can adequately address the antisemitic hate speech that keeps appearing in the boys’ bathrooms.
A Culture of White Supremacy
While the swastika graffiti in the boys’ bathrooms is a disturbing sign of an increase in antisemitism across the country and around the globe, such hate speech is also part of a larger culture of white supremacy, which is being allowed to flourish within the school and the community during the 2021-2022 school year. Indeed, experts remind us that antisemitism is the canary in the coalmine of hatred, and images from Charlottesville in 2017 and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol show the clear linkages between antisemitism and other forms of hate and white supremacy.
Replacing the MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hats that kids commonly wore during the last school year, white students in the school routinely wear and display “Blue Live Matter” and “Thin Blue Line” sweatshirts and decals. Students who are part of the small but growing number of students of color report that anti-Black and anti-immigrant hate speech goes largely unchallenged in the hallways and classrooms by students and teachers. Unlike in years past, white students’ use of the n-word goes largely unchecked in the current environment. Homophobic and transphobic hate speech is similarly unchallenged and, in some instances, even tacitly or openly endorsed by teachers.
In the past, when troubling instances of antisemitism from neighboring school districts in southern Wisconsin surfaced on social media, there was widespread outrage that teachers, administrators, and community members had failed to address such hate speech. Although, given recent shifts in national rhetoric over the past year, teachers and administrators now live in fear that efforts to combat antisemitic and white supremacist hate speech are increasingly likely to draw attention and condemnation as attempts to indoctrinate students with critical race theory. As a teacher, I fear that my efforts to draw attention to hate speech will result in public backlash. Similar fears have likely caused many teachers and administrators to remain quiet and hate speech to go largely unchecked.
As of yet, there has been no formal communication from the school about the repeated appearances of the swastikas to students, staff, or the larger community. As I suspect is the case in many schools across Wisconsin and the country in the 2021-2022 school year, the swastika graffiti is quickly painted over and vandalized toilet paper dispensers are quietly replaced.
While calls for “more Holocaust education” remain a popular solution to the growing antisemitic hate speech in schools, as a Holocaust and genocide educator and researcher, I am beginning to wonder about the limits of Holocaust education when confronting and educating students about the broader culture of white supremacy remains largely off-limits. I am, however, confident of one thing: with little response to the swastikas that appeared in the boys’ bathrooms this week, there are sure to be more drawn or carved next week.
George Dalbo is a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum and Instruction and Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota and a former Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. George’s research broadly centers on how the Holocaust, genocide, mass violence, and human rights are taught in K-12 classrooms. George is also a full-time high school social studies teacher in rural south-central Wisconsin. In his 16th year of teaching, George has taught every grade from 5th-12th in public, charter, and private schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin and two years in Vienna, Austria.