A family in Birmingham, Alabama has received both death and arson threats after reporting an incident in which their teenage son witnessed his teacher leading the class in giving Nazi-style salutes during a history lesson.
Mariya Tytell, the mother of Ephraim “Epps” Tytell, who attends Mountain Brook High School in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, described the incident as part of “a pattern” of antisemitism.
Her son “came home very upset,” she said, adding that he told her and his father that students were performing the Nazi salute. As the only Jewish student in the history class, it had made him feel “very scared and uncomfortable,” he had told them.
Ms Tytell admits that she initially thought that it had been “a misunderstanding” and brushed off her son’s concerns, but she then received calls from other parents and realised that this had not been the case.
A statement from the regional education authority said that the lesson was to explain about symbols changing over time and that the teacher allegedly “using the Bellamy salute” as an example. Before its adoption by the Nazis, this was a gesture to show allegiance to the American flag. School leaders said that the teacher had not instructed students to give the salute.
A short video, taken by a classmate, showing students raising their arms toward the American flag was circulated on social media. Ms Tytell said that an administrator told her son to apologise for sharing the video, and that when her son refused, he allegedly faced retaliation from his teacher including having his phone taken away and having his seat moved to the front of the classroom.
Ms Tytell said that the family tried to work out the issue with the school’s administration but claims that they were brushed off and that after speaking to the media about the incident, the family received death and arson threats.
“We kind of see it as a failure of leadership and also as part of a longer pattern of constant antisemitic incidents,” said Ms Tytell.
Danny Cohn, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation and acting CEO of the Alabama Holocaust Education Centre, said that he did not think the teacher was “being intentionally antisemitic.”
Mr Cohn said that the reason for the incident could be attributed to a lapse in judgment, but added that he understood the reaction that it had provoked. When Jews “see the Nazi salute, they’re not listening for context,” he said. “They just see something that’s sent more than six million of our people to their deaths.”
He said that he had asked Mountain Brook Schools to allow its teachers to participate in a Holocaust education programme.
Mountain Brook school district leaders later conceded that the history lesson had lacked sensitivity. They also reportedly said that they did not condone performing the salute when a picture would have been sufficient and that the issue had been addressed with the teacher. They added that they stand against antisemitism and that they were working with local Jewish organisations.