Photos from an off-campus local high school party over the weekend show Nazi symbolism during a drinking game, an action a few have defended as just a joke, while countless others say it’s not funny.
Photos of the Saturday night party were posted on social media and show a group of teenagers giving the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute while gathering around a swastika formed with red plastic cups. It was soon revealed that several of the students in the photo attend Newport Harbor High School, as well as other local high schools.
The photos show the students playing a beer pong game, or “German rage cage” as some students called it in a message accompanying the photos, was “Jews vs. Nazis.” According to reports, cups were arranged into a Star of David (not shown in the photos) on the other side of the table. The game, which has been documented at other high schools across the country, is also sometimes called “Alcoholocaust.”
The photos quickly went viral and picked up national attention.
The vast majority of comments expressed outrage, condemned the students’ behavior and called for tough discipline.
Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon and Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill released a joint statement on Monday about the incident, saying they are “appalled and saddened” by the “deeply disturbing” photos.
“That behavior is not acceptable and not reflective of our community’s collective character,” Dixon and O’Neill wrote. “We can and we must expect better. We pledge to work together to demonstrate that tolerance, mutual respect and dignity define this community.”
Some online commenters, including a few who claimed to be NHHS students, defended the kids on various social media sites, arguing that it was just a game or only a joke. Others wrote that they are simply teenagers who had been drinking and made a poor decision.
Messages between some of the alleged teens involved in the game said they thought it was funny and commented that people are over-reacting and are too easily offended. Others have since apologized.
But the flippant attitude toward such serious subject matter is exactly what some pointed out as a big part of the problem.
“I find the casualness of their bigotry and hate particularly concerning,” Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris noted. “This is not normal and we can’t turn a blind eye.”
Petrie-Norris, who represents Newport Beach in the 74th Assembly District, said on Monday that she is “heartsick and disturbed” at the teens’ anti-Semitic behavior.
Congressman Harley Rouda, whose district (CA-48) also covers Newport Beach, commented that such a joke can have serious consequences.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not they thought it was funny,” Rouda stated. “When we joke about Nazism, its history loses meaning — and we cannot forget that history. These students must learn that hate has consequences, and their parents and our school district must redouble their efforts to teach them.”
Officials from the Anti-Defamation League of Orange County/Long Beach also emphasized that this is no laughing matter and it should not be taken lightly.
“Swastikas and Nazi salutes are never funny,” ADL OC/LB officials commented on Sunday. “When such actions are considered jokes, hate and bigotry become normalized. And then we open the door for escalating acts of bias, bigotry and bullying. ADL takes this very seriously.”
School officials are looking into the incident, gathering information about the students’ conduct, and working with law enforcement, according to an NHHS statement released on Sunday.
“We condemn all acts of anti-Semitism and hate in all their forms,” NHHS administration staff noted. “We remain focused on educating students on all aspects of life’s challenges and are committed to holding students accountable, educating them on the consequences of their choices, and the impact these actions have on our schools and community at large.”
Several students who spoke at a community meeting at NHHS Tuesday said this is not the first time they have experienced anti-Semitism at school. Some mentioned slurs or swastikas drawn on bathroom stalls or carved into desks.
Newport Harbor High School also had hateful graffiti vandalism in 2010. The vandals used black and neon green spray paint to “tag” walls, sheds and carports. The graffiti included swastikas, “666 white,” “WP” and “88.” The number 88 is commonly used as a code for “HH” (the letter H is eighth in the alphabet) meaning “Heil Hitler,” police explained at the time.
Rabbi Gersh Zylberman, Senior Rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, noted that the incident happened during a time of dramatically increased anti-Semitic incidents nationwide.
Data from the Anti-Defamation League show a significant year-to-year increase on anti-Semitic incidents in the United States. In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents surged nearly 60 percent, according to the 2017 ADL Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents.
The NHHS Associated Student Body called the behavior “unacceptable” and “utterly wrong” in a statement. The ASB urged their fellow students to be considerate of others and stand up for what’s right.
“With all of the bad out there, we will — and encourage everyone — to turn to goodness, kindness, and respect over hatred. We must be lights of positivity in the darkness by standing with, and more importantly, up for any victims of injustice and discrimination,” the ASB students noted. “We will stand together with all of you as a force and voice of goodness, so that our school may continue to be the place of happiness, respect, and positivity we intend it to be.”
Rabbi Reuven Mintz, director of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Newport Beach, said he was “appalled and saddened” by the incident. But it is heartening to see the united public response, he added.
“My goal and hope is to seize this dark moment and use it as opportunity to illuminate Newport Beach as a whole; but specifically, to positively transform the lives of the erring students,” Mintz said.
Many comments from officials were focused on how to educate kids moving forward.
“This behavior is not learned in our schools,” Dixon and O’Neill wrote, “but once learned – wherever and however it is – anti-Semitism can and must be unlearned through education and dialogue.”
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement Tuesday that he is “deeply distressed by the perpetuation of hate displayed” in the photos.
It’s important to educate youth on the importance of “diversity, inclusivity, and the power of speaking out against hate,” Spitzer said. There is still a lot of work to be done, he added.
“Our goal is the eradication of hate,” Spitzer said.
OC Human Relations noted their commitment to supporting NHHS and the Newport Mesa community through BRIDGES: Safe and Respectful Schools Program. They will work on long term solutions, OC Human Relations CEO Alison Edwards confirmed.
Chabad is also working closely with NHHS leadership in an effort to “facilitate greater awareness, Holocaust education, and encounters with survivors to engage with students on an ongoing basis.”
Eva Schloss, 89, an Auschwitz survivor and Anne Frank’s stepsister, met with the Newport students behind the incident at the school on Thursday. Schloss said she is hopeful that, despite their actions, the students have the potential to become advocates of tolerance and understanding.
Mintz helped arrange the meeting.
“Our hope is that meeting someone who witnessed, firsthand, the atrocities committed under that same swastika and salute will help guide these students towards a life of tolerance and acceptance, spreading a message of inclusion and love, rather than one of hatred,” Mintz said. “It’s imperative that today’s young people come face to face with the consequences of unchecked hatred.”
Petrie-Norris also emphasized that kids need to be better educated on such topics, she said.
A study conducted last year by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany reported that 41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of millennials say they don’t know about the Auschwitz death camp. Nearly half of millennials polled did not know that nearly 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. And 22 percent of millennials said they hadn’t even heard of the Holocaust.
“We cannot forget these histories,” Edwards of commented. “This incident highlights the importance of education and the need to learn the many histories of the different people who make up this country. With hate crimes in Orange County on the rise, it seems more important than ever that we break down the barriers that keep us from understanding each other and start building the connections from which empathy grows.”