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Though shocking, Nazi symbol displayed at high school party is hardly a surprise in Newport-Mesa

Though shocking, Nazi symbol displayed at high school party is hardly a surprise in Newport-Mesa
Sophomore Gina Leaman shares her comments during a town hall style meeting at Newport Harbor High School concerning pictures that recently emerged from a party that showed students saluting a swastika. Leaman wondered aloud why no one stood up to stop the offensive gesture. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The reaction to the use of anti-Semitic imagery by a group of local students has been swift and forceful.

The photos posted on social media appear to show some partying teens, reportedly students at Newport-Mesa high schools, delivering a Nazi salute in front of a table set with red plastic cups arranged in the shape of a swastika.

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Newport-Mesa School District officials responded immediately by condemning acts of hate and promising to investigate the matter in cooperation with police, even though the photos were taken off campus. Meanwhile, others throughout the community expressed outrage and disgust, as they should.

But let’s be clear about one important point: Nothing about this ugly incident is in the least bit surprising.

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Orange County, it is well known, has a long history of bigotry and intolerance, from the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century to the more recent emergence of neo-Nazi organizations like the Rise Above Movement and White Aryan Resistance.

It would be a mistake to think that the hatred espoused by such groups remains somehow isolated from the rest of us, or that the influence of these forces is waning or has been rendered insignificant.

Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of intolerance might not always be expressed in such blatant ways, but they are always there, lurking not far under the surface in our communities. That such poisonous attitudes are only sometimes revealed doesn’t mean that they aren’t present. They are, and to deny that reality allows the hate to proliferate.

It has been suggested that at least some of the students in the images were only joking, and that their behavior might have been more a reflection of ignorance than malice.

While it’s possible that at least some of the students might not have realized that their use of symbols of evil as party props was deeply offensive, that hardly makes their actions any less disturbing. Bigotry blooms from ignorance.

Granted, most of the racial and religious bias in our community doesn’t rise to the level of hate group ideology. It often simmers at a lower level, and is expressed in unkind words and thoughts, everyday slights and insults, and yes, so-called “jokes” that aren’t remotely funny.

Ask any Jewish student if they are shocked by what these kids did. They would likely be upset, and with good reason. But surprised, no. After all, just last fall, an Irvine synagogue was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. Such despicable acts make an impression.

Some Jewish friends told me that their children were regularly subjected to anti-Semitic slurs and “jokes” by other students at Newport-Mesa schools. So no, my friends weren’t surprised by this latest episode either.

It’s like when you turn over a rock to reveal the insects underneath, my friend told me. The vermin are always there; they just need to be exposed.

So let’s do that. Let’s call bigotry out, expose it to the sunlight again and again, and let no part of it be sanctioned, sheltered or excused. Let’s bathe it in the glow of enlightenment.

After learning of the students’ photos, I thought about my late father.

Dad appreciated a good laugh. When he was a young man he moved to Los Angeles and made a meager living writing jokes for Hollywood comics. He would not have been amused, indeed he would have been disgusted, by anyone mimicking a Nazi salute.

When the United States entered World War II, Dad was called to serve. He was sent to Europe, where he was in a military intelligence unit attached to General George S. Patton’s Third Army. He risked life and limb to deliver reports on enemy movements to the front lines.

Toward the end of the war, Dad witnessed the liberation of some concentration camps. I remember well the haunted look in his eyes as he described the prisoners they found just barely alive — walking skeletons draped in rags, dragging their bare, bloody feet through the snow.

He wanted to rip the clothes off his back to cover them, and lavish them with all the rations he could muster. But the soldiers were warned not to do so, that a sudden intake of food could kill a starving person. So, despite his anguish, he held back.

Dad knew then, with greater certainty than ever, exactly what he’d been fighting for. And he swore to never forget the horrors he saw firsthand.

Three years ago on a trip to Germany, I visited Dachau, just outside Munich, where a notorious Nazi concentration camp has been preserved for history. At the end of the tour I broke down and cried, as I imagine many people do. I thought of my dad then too, and his realization about what is worth fighting for.

We can’t change history, but we can fight intolerance here and now. We can, and must, fight it with everything we’ve got — with fiercely intentional love, kindness, inclusivity and, perhaps most important, education.

It is incumbent upon parents, neighbors, educators, community leaders — all of us who denounce bigotry in all its forms — to teach our kids the price we all pay when symbols of hate are allowed to become normalized. We must keep turning over the rocks of intolerance.

Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, and is the coauthor of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.

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