Kevin Kline’s character Otto from “A Fish Called Wanda” was outdone by Alabama high school officials who demanded that a Jewish student apologize for something he did not do and disregarded any thought of apologizing for his teacher’s action – leading his class in a Nazi-like salute.
Unlike the former C.I.A. hitman portrayed by Kline, they did not need to dangle Ephraim Tytell headfirst from a high-rise window in London to bully him – as Kline did to the pompous, English-accented attorney played by John Cleese in the 1988 movie.
Schools on various levels have blundered with instances of antisemitism and other prejudices from both the left and the right, but the episode at Mountain Brook High School outside Birmingham stands out due to the multiple layers opening with the original offense followed at higher levels by intimidation, hypocrisy and insensitivity.
Maybe Tytell will follow suit, literally, of other Jewish students who have filed legal actions against officials. Tytell can choose from any number of offenses that he alleges. It is worth parsing Tytell’s story for blunders big and small as reported in various news reports.
Blunder #1: Breaking the story on Feb. 8, Southern Jewish Life recounts that a teacher identified as Joe Webb told students in history to stand and perform the Bellamy Salute – which resembles Nazi Germany’s salute – while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The salute was retired during the 1940s because it resembled the Nazi salute. Tytell told the publication that Webb then instructed the class to rise and do the salute. Tytell and a few other students remained seated. “I never thought I would be in a classroom where everyone would stand up and do the Heil Hitler,” said Tytell, the only Jewish student in the room.
No matter what Webb was trying to do, he never (ahem!) did his homework as to how this exercise might affect any students.
Blunder #2: Tytell’s mother, Mariya Tytell, called the Jan. 18 lesson “incredibly stupid,” which sounds like an apt characterization. At best, it was poor judgment on the teacher’s part.
Blunder #3: Tytell was instructed to apologize to the teacher for filming him without permission when he was called out of his math class the next day and brought to the office of Assistant Principal Jeremy Crigger, according to his parents; Webb was also in the room.
The student explained that another student shot a photo and a brief video clip, and Tytell shared the clip on his social media. He would not apologize, but he did take the video down.
School authorities assumed that Tytell was the culprit and accused him of the so-called offense without evidence.
Blunder #4: They demanded that Tytell identify the student who took the video.
Remember the post-WWII anti-communist hearings conducted by members of Congress, lastly Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin? Suspected communists were told not only to confess to communist affiliation but likewise to “name names” of other suspected communists. Refusal to do so often led to ruined careers.
Obviously, the Mountain Brook “hearing” was something straight out of McCarthyism. Unlike Elaine Benis of “Seinfeld,” Tytell would not “name a name.”
Blunder #5: His mother said they told him, “If this blows up there will be more disciplinary action, because you are making Mountain Brook look bad.”
Perhaps they would not face looking bad if they did not do bad. They not only blamed him for his reaction to watching a Nazi-like salute in a public-school setting, but he would be subjected to further punishment if the incident soiled the school’s public image. He is responsible for the school’s image?
Blunder #6: In this vein, school officials were concerned about how this would look, but not about the lesson itself. “They are punishing not the wrongdoer but the one who is exposing the wrongdoer,” his mother said.
Blunder #7: The intimidation so far must have been insufficient, so school officials compounded their campaign of coercion. The parents said that Ephraim desk was moved next to the teacher’s desk after being in the back of the room, and he was the only student told – in front of the class – to put his phone away during class.
Shortly afterwards, Ephraim said, he attempted to speak to Webb, who in turn shouted at him and “said I hadn’t apologized to him.”
Blunder #8: His father, David Tytell, told Southern Jewish Life that the principal, Philip Holley, said he was too busy for this type of issue.
Holley might not have wanted to touch the matter, but it is his job to look into it or inform the superintendent and the school board.
Blunder #9: The Associated Press reports that the school system released a statement on Feb. 8 calling the video and photos shared online “not representative of the lesson” and nobody attempted to teach students how to conduct a Nazi salute.
So what did the lesson represent? How did the students learn to conduct a Nazi or Nazi-like salute?
With pressure mounting, the system followed up with a statement that said in part: “There are more effective ways to teach this subject without re-creating painful, emotional responses to history’s atrocities,” according to AP.
“To improve our instructional strategies,” the statement continues, “we will continue to work with the Alabama Holocaust Education Center to advance training for our teachers surrounding Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and its symbols. Training is needed to know better than to do this?
The school system adds that it stands “absolutely and unequivocally” against antisemitism. Was the school system for antisemitism prior to this incident?
The South has an entrenched reputation for racism and other forms of bigotry like antisemitism. I know little more about this pattern than what I have read, but I cannot believe that this is an Alabama thing.
No doubt the school board has asked its attorney about the legal ramifications for the treatment that Ephraim Tytell says he endured. Perhaps the school board will ask about their avenues for firing the college-educated school officials – who lack common sense – whom Ephraim accuses of bullying him. Training is not an option.