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Alabama School Faces Backlash over Nazi Salutes to US Flag

An Alabama high school is facing backlash after a video was released last week of a teacher and students doing a Nazi-style salute to the United States flag. 

Video and pictures of the January 18th incident, released by Jewish student Ephraim Tytell on Snapchat, show 11th grade US History teacher Joe Webb of Mountain Brook High School doing the straight-armed, open palm salute associated with the Nazi party. Webb was joined in saluting the US flag by some students, who Tytell told AL.com had encouraged to join. The school denied that Webb had instructed students to perform the salute. 

According to AL.com, Tytell was called to Assistant Principal Jeremy Crigger’s office, and told to apologize to Webb for posting the video, as it was “making Mountain Brook look bad.” Tytell didn’t apologize. Webb moved Tytell’s class seat to the front of the class, and students were no longer allowed to use their phones. 

“The picture and 3 second video being circulated are not representative of the lesson, what was being taught, or the context of the instruction that was occurring,” Mountain Brook Schools explained in a Tuesday statement. “The US History teacher was teaching a lesson on the meaning of symbols in the context of history. The Bellamy Salute was used as an example of a symbol whose meaning dramatically changed. The salute was named for Francis Bellamy, the writer of the Pledge of Allegiance, originating in 1892. A similar symbol was adopted by the Nazi Party in the 1920’s. Because of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Party against humanity, the symbol’s meaning in America changed and the American flag salute was changed to a hand over the heart in 1942. The focus of the lesson was the meaning of symbols, how they change, and why the Bellamy Salute should never again be recognized due to its association with the actions of the Nazi Party…Understanding the sensitive nature of this subject, Mountain Brook Schools has addressed the instructional strategy used with the teacher and does not condone the modeling of this salute when a picture or video could accurately convey the same message.”

Tytell told AL.com that while it was a history lesson, it could have been taught in a different way. 

A faculty member said to the NGO StopAntisemitism.org that the “student who took the photo and video did so to intentionally start trouble.” The Tytell family told WBHM that they received death and arson threats for speaking up. They also said to AL.com that they had been targets of antisemitic incidents in the past.

“I want to give Coach Webb the benefit of the doubt,” Tytell’s mother told AL.com, and said that their family was mostly upset of how the school had handled the incident. 

“The community is understandably upset at the lack of judgment and the use of the salute and the treatment of the student,” Daniel Cohn, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, told The Jerusalem Post. “Over the past week, The Birmingham Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council have been engaged in ongoing dialogue with Mountain Brook Schools regarding the incident concerning the Nazi salute at Mountain Brook High School.”

Cohn said to The Post that they had an “open and honest dialogue regarding the incident and its effect and implications for our students, Jewish community, and the City of Mountain Brook,” in a meeting between the Birmingham Jewish Federation and the school’s superintendent, principal and other education officials. Following the meeting, Mountain Brook Schools released an additional statement. 

“Earlier this week, we released a statement concerning an instructional method used in a US History lesson. We continue to learn about this matter and have heard many perspectives,” said the school on Thursday. “The instructional strategy for this lesson lacked sensitivity, and however unintentional, caused hurt and distress within the community. More than 17 million people were killed, including 6 million Jews, during the Holocaust and this salute desecrates their memory. We are deeply apologetic for the pain caused. There are more effective ways to teach this subject without recreating painful, emotional responses to history’s atrocities.”

“We are committed to providing a safe learning environment for everyone in our schools,” said the school. “We absolutely and unequivocally stand against antisemitism.”

This is not the first time that Mountain Brooks Schools has been embroiled in an antisemitic scandal.

In May 2020, StopAntisemitism documented how students were filmed drawing swastikas on their bodies. In June, Harrison Bleiberg, a former student, shared a list of incidents in a Facebook post prior to a demonstration about racism at the institution. 

“There are many people from Mountain Brook, Alabama who are, during this difficult time, insisting that racism and prejudice is a fluke, not an ongoing pattern in the community,” Bleiberg said at the time. 

According to Bleiberg, swastika graffiti was commonplace in the bathrooms, the death of Anne Frank in a play was called “cool” by students, and Bleiberg was awarded a certificate that said, “Most Likely to be Jewish.” There were also reportedly derogatory statements made about LGBTQ, Muslim, black, and Asian Americans.