NOVEMBER 1, 2018, READING and SALEM – Less than a week after hundreds gathered on the Reading Town Common to decry the slew of swastikas and hate slogans that have been found in town schools and municipal properties, another swastika was discovered at the town’s high school.
In a separate incident in Salem, police discovered a seawall covered with hate slogans at Collins Cove. The graffiti included multiple swastikas, and the words “Kill Kykes” next to a drawing of Hitler.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that anti-Semitic and racist graffiti has no chance of gaining traction in our community,” said Anti-Defamation League New England Regional Director Robert Trestan. “Confronting hate always starts with community leadership. We’re grateful to Salem Mayor Driscoll, Salem Police Department and local residents, who immediately condemned this act, ensuring that Salem will not be defined by cowardly acts of bigotry.”
In Reading, school and town officials have discovered more than 24 swastikas over the last 18 months. Nearly all have been found in schools. In June, a student reported that “Gas the Jews” was written in the town’s middle school lobby. Also over the last year, furniture at the town library was defaced by a swastika.
“Unfortunately, we continue to have these graffiti related incidents in our schools and in our community,” Reading Memorial High School Principal Kathleen M. Boynton wrote in a letter to parents last week. “The swastika symbolizes hate and anti-Semitism and there is no place for these types of hateful actions or behaviors in our schools or in the greater Reading community. The actions of one person cannot be allowed to overshadow the tremendous kindness, respect, empathy and acceptance our students, staff and greater RMHS community embody every day inside and outside of the classroom.”
The school department has responded by encouraging tolerance within the schools and inviting the Anti-Defamation League to help teachers create an anti-bias education program. It has also invited Holocaust survivor Dr. Anna Ornstein to speak in schools. Still, the town’s small Jewish population – estimated to be under 200 families – is on edge, according to Linda Snow Dockser, who helps coordinate Shabbat programs for the community.
“It’s put us on edge, it feels very uncomfortable, it’s been very difficult,” said Dockser, who is also the vice-chair of the Reading School Committee.
Dockser is unsure why so many swastikas have been etched into desks and found in other sections of schools, but believes the country’s top elected leaders have influenced society, and this message has trickled down to teenage students. “I think that we have role models now that are giving people license to express hate, and that’s unacceptable – whether it’s tweeted or on social media. People are given permission to scapegoat others. Our role models have been at fault,” she said.
At a rally in late October on the town common to decry anti-Semitism, high school student Tali Shorr – who reported finding a swastika on a classroom floor last year – spoke about how some peers have counseled her to learn how to take the sight of swastikas in her school as a joke.
“How is the death of 6 million of my people a joke?” she asked as the hundreds listened intently. “It’s not to me. It’s very serious.”
Trestan, of the ADL, said hate speech has found its way into the mainstream in the form of online harassment, graffiti in schools and in public places and in the form of violence. “When the mainstream accepts dehumanizing people and targeting people, people begin to feel it’s OK to do that, it’s OK to send those messages,” he said.
The swastikas in Reading also mirror a national and state trend, said Trestan. “In 2017 we tracked an 86 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts schools. So it’s not surprising. The majority of incidents that we have been seeing are occurring in schools. It does speak to the importance and urgent need for working with students, because they represent the future.”
Dr. Anna Ornstein, a Brookline psychiatrist, grew up in Hungary and at the age of 17 was taken, along with her parents, by the Nazis to Auschwitz. Her father was murdered in the gas chamber there, and her brothers died in Nazi forced labor camps. Ornstein survived Auschwitz, and other death camps, and became a doctor in Germany. For the last decade, she has been a frequent guest speaker in Reading schools.
“People need to take it very, very seriously and not to dismiss it as a prank, as something that children do and they don’t know what they are doing. This happened in Germany. Everything comes in slow symbols. What is a symbol today can become a reality tomorrow,” said Ornstein.
In Salem, police are investigating the latest hate graffiti found in Collins Cove – just blocks away from the city common’s bandstand where a swastika was found last year.
“Whether this was done with malicious intent or just out of stupidity, it is an action that must be condemned in the strongest possible terms,” Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said in a prepared statement. “This incident is evidence that no community, even one as welcoming as Salem, is immune from hatred and that we must remain ever vigilant in denouncing these acts and in supporting efforts to combat bigotry and hatred in any form.”