When a student at Minnetonka High School in suburban Minneapolis posted an Instagram photo in January asking a girl out to a school dance using a series of Holocaust-related puns – and doing a Nazi salute in celebration – junior Ariella Fogel wasn’t surprised.
Ever since she transferred into the district in 6th grade, she says, she’s encountered anti-Semitism – Holocaust jokes, Nazi salutes, hateful comments about Israel.
What was surprising in this case, she said, was that none of her non-Jewish peers called the couple out on their behavior – which also included an anti-Semitic rap. It was only Jewish students who complained.
“That’s something that I’m trying to wrap my head around,” she said. “Why didn’t anyone speak up and say it’s not okay?”
Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said he was seeing a “swastika renaissance.” Incidents of high schoolers parroting Nazi imagery for laughs have been increasing around the country. Experts say the trend is driven by teens’ desires for validation, especially on social media – where many are also exposed to extremism and hatred. Ironically, Levin explained, the symbol has been “picked up by upper-middle-class white kids” hoping to take advantage of its shock value even as white nationalist groups have abandoned it in a bid to gain mainstream acceptability.
“Something that’s so offensive like that, I don’t know if it counts as being a teenager making a dumb mistake,” Fogel said. “Students at Minnetonka are held to such a high standard, and they absolutely know better.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 survey of kindergarten through high school, its most recent, found a 94% increase in anti-Semitic incidents.
Many of these cases – including several similar to what Fogel experienced – took place in areas where parents might think that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen: private schools or high-ranked public schools in wealthy areas.
WHAT’S HOLOCAUST PONG?
In the most recent incident last week, students from Newport Harbor High School in Orange County, California gave Nazi salutes while playing a drinking game with the cups arranged in the shape of a swastika. Teens have been caught playing that game, sometimes called “Holocaust Pong” or “Alcoholocaust,” in Princeton, New Jersey and prep schools in Atlanta and Kansas City.
In the past 13 months, groups of high schoolers in Phoenix and middle schoolers in the hippie-dippie L.A. suburb of Ojai posed for photos while lying on the ground in the shape of swastikas.
Last fall, all but one member of the junior class in the small town of Baraboo, Wisconsin posed for a prom photo with a Sieg Heil salute (some students tried to claim they were just “waving goodbye,” but the student who didn’t participate said the rest knew what they were doing.)
Members of a club soccer team in the Indianapolis suburb of Zionsville also posed for a photo while giving Nazi salutes in January; the Indianapolis Star reported that an earlier version of the squad had posted a similar photo in 2014.
“I pee next to swastikas on the wall in the school’s bathroom,” Newport Harbor senior Max Drakeford said at a community meeting on Monday. “I work on desks with swastikas etched on them.”
THE TEENAGE BRAIN ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Most of the time, the Nazi-related incidents are caught because students post about them on Snapchat or Instagram.
“These kids clearly aren’t the only ones [doing this], they’re just the ones exercising not-great judgment to put it on the internet,” said Rabbi Peter Levi, director of the ADL’s Orange County office.
Students in Newport and Minnetonka learn about the Holocaust in their classes, so were likely to known the meaning and the hatred behind the symbols. “Even if they see it as a joke, a joke requires context that makes it funny,” he said.
It’s true that teens are primed to test limits, but “It’s not as simple as saying they’re all rebellious kids who are dumb,” said Dr. Neil Bernstein, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents with behavioral issues.
Dr. Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, explained that peer pressure is a strong motivator because adolescent brains are primed to seek “social rewards” – in other words, “anything that gets you attention or power or visibility among peers.”
But he added that even adolescents who are highly susceptible to peer pressure have breaking points. “It’s the whole adage, ‘If your friend jumps off a bridge, would you?’ No, at some point even peer influence has its limits,” he said. “And I would have hoped that this would have been on the right side of using Holocaust imagery recklessly.”
Both psychologists said that social media – particularly the quest for “likes” and other forms of validation – is a key component in this issue. “Social media gives kids the opportunity for the popularity jackpot that their brains are built to crave,” Prinstein said.
And heavy social media use could cause exposure to hateful figures or ideas. Levi said the ADL had tracked a “massive proliferation of hate and extremism on the internet, on all platforms.”
Indeed, PewDiePie, the most popular video-maker on YouTube with 78 million subscribers, has repeatedly amplified anti-Semitic rhetoric, including paying performers to hold up a sign reading “Death to All Jews.”
And the proliferation of anti-Semitism on Twitter and Instagram is well documented. “There’s so many memes and cartoons I see of Holocaust-themed memes,” Liora Rez, who runs the popular Instagram account Jewish Chick, told the Atlantic last October.
Prinstein also pointed to another possible causal factor: President Trump.
“I can’t help but fear that this is somehow related to the example it’s been set by politics recently,” he said.
Teens are the number one consumers of social media, even of messages for which they aren’t the intended targets. “I have no doubt that today’s youth are tuned into the inflammatory statements made and reinforced on social media,” he said.
He added that research has suggested that children as young as elementary school are echoing Trump’s language in their games on the playground, including through games involving “border walls.”
Fogel, who said her suburb is “pretty conservative,” said that she’d also seen Muslim students subjected to intolerance.
THE NORMALIZATION OF INTOLERANCE
Levi, of the ADL, said he wouldn’t make a causal connection directly to the president. But, he added, intolerance has become increasingly normalized in society, and can be seen on TV, the internet, in political statements and even houses of worship. “There’s something else going on that enables certain politicians to get elected, that enables certain news or entertainment or extremist sources to be consumed,” he said. One possible reason: “Decency and civility and respect are not being modeled in so many kids’ lives.”
Although schools are usually barred by privacy laws from revealing the consequences for students involved in such actions, many have had similar public responses – letters of condemnation, convening community meetings, bringing in a Holocaust survivor or other Jewish leader, setting up Holocaust history exhibits in hallways.
But Levi said that forcing students to listen passively to a survivor is unlikely to bring them on a “self-reflective journey.”
“What we really need is deep education about bias, how we’re affected by media, by the greater community, by the culture that helps us see the world…Students knew it was wrong and felt bad, but why didn’t they do anything? They need tools in their toolbox for how to respond to their peers,” he said.
Bernstein said parents needed to play a key role ensuring their children develop empathy. “The more a young person feels empathy for others…the less likely they are to do that,” he said.
Fogel agreed that education was important – though she wondered whether her school’s Holocaust curriculum inadvertently gave the implication to students that anti-Semitism ended in the 1940s.
But she added that Jewish students should take this opportunity to be “making themselves less hidden, and being more open and standing up for themselves and what you believe is true.”
Correction, March 12: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the ADL’s Orange County office. It is Rabbi Peter Levi, not Levy.
Contact Aiden Pink at firstname.lastname@example.org