MOUNTAIN BROOK, Ala. ( Associated Press) — A Jewish high school student said he couldn’t believe what was going on when a history teacher in a wealthy Alabama school system had classmates stand and give a stiff-armed Nazi salute during a lesson on the way symbols change.
Once he shared a video and photos of the incident on social media, Ephraim Tytell said, he received a reprimand from school administrators in Mountain Brook, a suburb of Birmingham.
“They proceeded to tell me that I’m making Mountain Brook look bad for uploading the video and sharing it and asked me to apologize to my teacher, which I refused to,” he told WIAT-TV, “The day after, he made our class, and our class only, put up our phones and he moved me from sitting in the back of the class to right next to him.”
First reported by the Birmingham-based Southern Jewish Life, the incident last month gained traction on social media. On Tuesday, the school system issued a statement saying the video and photos shared online “are not representative of the lesson” and no one tried to teach students how to do a Nazi salute.
“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,” the statement said.
A system system did not immediately return an email Wednesday seeking additional comment.
The point of the lesson, Tytell said, was that something very similar to what’s now widely known as a Nazi salute was used before World War II to salute the US flag. Called the “Bellamy Salute” for decades, it was ditched in 1942 for the now-familiar right-hand-over-the-heart gesture after the United States’ entry into the war.
“He explained to us that in America we used to do that before WWII and everything, and then he proceeded to show us, ask us to stand up to salute the flag, and he and everyone else did the Nazi salute,” Ephraim said. “I felt upset, unsure of what’s going on —just kind of shocked.”
Mountain Brook Listens, a group that works to promote diversity in the virtually all-white city of 22,000, issued a statement saying the incident showed the need for more resources, education and training on understanding implicit biases, building empathy and acting with more compassion.
“And our entire community, including our school system, must foster an environment where people feel safe to report behavior that they are concerned about and certainly not create an environment that cultivates any ‘fear of reprisal,'” it said.
The controversy comes just months after Mountain Brook’s school system responded to community complaints about a diversity program produced by the Anti-Defamation League, which combats anti-Semitism, by dropping the lessons. Schools had begun using the material after anti-Semitic events, including a video of a student with a swastika drawn on his body, but opponents claimed the lessons focused too heavily on race and gender and were produced by a group they considered controversial politically.