Responding to the Swastika



Reprinted from Not IN Our Town

Hundreds gathered in Sacramento on the steps of the California state capitol for a rally against anti-Semitism, March 9, 2015.(Michael Alcalay) Credit: JTA, Michael Alcalay

By Becki Cohn-Vargas
Not In Our School Director

Becki Cohn-VargasAs a child of Holocaust survivors, I grew up hearing about my parents’ struggle to stay alive. Both my parents were born in Germany. Separately, as teens they each barely escaped with their families after Kristallnacht, my father as a refugee to Shanghai and my mother to England.

Even as I go to Temple on the Jewish High Holidays each year, with a police officer or security guard outside protecting us while we pray, I had not been frightened that anti-Semitism would rise to those horrific proportions again. Only once in my life was I called a “dirty Jew.” Yet, recently, as we heard about Jews being targeted and murdered in both France and Denmark, a fear rose inside me. After all, it is only 70 years after Auschwitz, and I still have living relatives who have been in concentration camps.

And then, less than 100 miles from my home, a Swastika was spray-painted in red on a Jewish fraternity at the University of California at Davis. Nathaniel Bernhard, vice president of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, told the Sacramento Bee, “Jewish people still can’t feel safe on their own campuses and in their own houses…Anti-Semitism still exists today. It’s not a fairy tale.” Recently, the National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, produced by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, found that more than half of Jewish students at American colleges had witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism within the previous academic year.

Although I cannot help but feel that visceral fear, I believe in my heart that most people do want to get along. A Quaker family in England took my mother’s family in when they managed to escape from from Germany.

As an educator, I have devoted my life to ending hatred and bigotry. That is what drew me to work at Not in Our Town (NIOT). I try to pay attention to both the small and large acts of anti-Semitism and hate against people of all backgrounds and identities. I try to have a laser sharp focus on naming and responding to acts of hate against any individual or group.

Whether it is graffiti with swastikas or teens who desecrated a Jewish cemetery in France, like canaries in the gold mine, youth are reflecting some of the hate we have allowed to fester in our society. But, I also see signs of hope in the powerful responses:

In Davis, CA, Muslim, Sikh and other student leaders joined together to make a statement condemning the swastika painted on the fraternity wall.
In Sacramento, CA, when a swastika replaced the Jewish star on the Israeli flag, community leaders of many faiths swiftly responded by holding a rally on the steps of the California State Capitol to condemn the act.
After swastikas were painted on a Jewish Fraternity at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the three Greek Councils, Panhellenic, IFC and National Pan-Hellenic, issued a joint statement, “As Vanderbilt Greek men and women…We find the acts committed against AEPi insensitive, appalling, and disgusting. We stand up in solidarity with AEPi, Hillel, Chabad, and the entire Jewish community both here at Vanderbilt and across the country.”
I am heartened by these responses, and they remind me why our work at Not In Our Town and Not In Our School is so important. I look forward to continuing to join with others across the country to speak up about small and large intolerant acts toward any group that is targeted by hate.


You Can Be an Upstander: When Someone is Bullied


As the nation responds to the devastating effects of bullying, it is important to highlight the crucial role of an upstander. An upstander is a person who speaks up or stands up to bullying and intolerance, either to prevent or intervene when someone is being harmed.

By Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director

I, for one, would not be here if it were not for an upstander. My father’s family barely escaped the Holocaust after Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” in Berlin on Nov. 9, 1938. He and his family found refuge in Shanghai, China.

Even in Shanghai, the Jews were not safe. Meisinger, known as the Butcher of Warsaw, traveled to China and convened a secret meeting in 1942 with a plan to exterminate the Shanghai’s 18,000 Jews either by constructing a gas chamber or by sending them out to sea and leaving them to die. Mitsugi Shibata, the Japanese consul in Shanghai, became aware of the plan. He met secretly with Jewish leaders and warned them. When the local military police found out, Shibata and the seven leaders were tortured and imprisoned. However, the word got out to Tokyo and the extermination plan was halted. Shibata’s courage saved thousands of Jews in Shanghai, among them my father. My father, Hans Cohn, wrote about his experiences in his autobiography, Risen From the Ashes, Tales of a Musical Messenger.

Not all upstanders save thousands. We can and must teach young people how to be upstanders. Whether it is to speak up for one person or for many, being an upstander is not easy. Yet, an upstander who speaks up for even one person can be part of a tidal wave of change to make our schools and world safer.

You Can Be an Upstander: Ideas When Someone is Bullied

From Child Abuse Prevention Center

At some point, every kid becomes a bystander—someone who witnesses bullying but doesn’t get involved. Instead, you can be an upstander, a person who knows what’s happening is wrong and does something to make things right. It takes courage to speak up on someone’s behalf. But just think: by doing so, you are becoming a person of character and also helping someone else.

Here are some things you can safely do:

  • Don’t join in the bullying
  • Support the victim in private—show your concern and offer kindness
  • Stand with the victim and say something
  • Mobilize others to join in and stand up to the bully
  • Befriend the victim and reach out to him/her in friendship
  • Alert an adult

Do not worry—you are not ratting out the bully by telling an adult. There’s a big difference between tattling and reporting a concern. Tattling is telling to get someone in trouble, reporting is telling to get someone out of trouble.

Additional Resources:



Reprinted from first published by CAP (Child Abuse Prevention Center) the October, 2102