That’s a doozy of a headline, right? Relax… it’s just a joke. Kind of. A teacher in Collier Count did, in fact, threaten to send a student “back to Auschwitz,” but she was only joking.

An offensive, derisive, antisemitic joke. I have to admit: as I watched those letters become words on the screen, I had a very visceral reaction. It’s hard to understand how anyone could justify a high school English teacher making that comment in class to a student during Holocaust Remembrance Week or any week. It’s much easier to understand how we got here.

While anti-Jewish sentiment goes back 2,000 years, one need only look at the past few years to see how it’s been normalized. From the synagogue attacks in Poway (CA), Colleyville (TX), and Pittsburgh (PA) to threats against synagogues in New York City and antisemitic chants at the Unite the Right event in Charlottesville (VA), Jewish people are experiencing hate at a higher rate than any other religious group in the U.S.

According to the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, in 2021 there were 2,717 reported antisemitic incidents of antisemitic harassment, vandalism, and assault throughout the United States. This is a 34% increase from the 2,026 incidents tabulated in 2020 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

Congratulations to Florida for being the 4th highest contributor of those numbers in the nation. In fairness, we’ve been busy with other things down here in the Sunshine State. Instead of addressing this rise in antisemitism, Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, has been very focused on criminalizing classroom books. Every book in every classroom is to be reviewed following stringent state guidelines heavily influenced by right-wing groups like Moms For Liberty.

Think about that for a minute. Florida educators who have the wrong books on their shelves could now face felony charges.  But we shrug at the teacher who jokes about sending a student “back to Auschwitz?” It’s truly mind-boggling that there is more activism and outrage about kids reading Dr. Seuss, Toni Morrison, and Ibram X Kendi’s books than about a teacher normalizing antisemitism.

And yet, when the next shooting happens at a Jewish synagogue or school, we’ll scratch our heads and wonder why. Will we wonder which library books drove him to do it? Maybe we should wonder if his antisemitic ideology was strengthened by you and me – deepened each time he experienced the tacit approval of silence to his derogatory comments and jokes… or when he witnessed the tacit approval of silence to the derogatory comments and jokes of others… perhaps those made by a teacher?

We expect children to speak up when they witness bad behavior and harmful acts, from bullying to cheating to criminal activity. To date, the “grown-ups” in Collier County have not demonstrated the same agency and conviction as the 14- and 15-year-old students who stepped up to report the incident to school leaders. It’s been more than a month and school officials have not acknowledged or addressed the incident with the students or the community nor has the teacher faced consequences. Apparently, they are still “investigating” the matter. It’s difficult to understand what more they need to investigate, but their impassivity speaks volumes.

The purpose of a consequence is to teach and maintain accountability. The person who jokes about the Holocaust will probably learn little from a reprimand or even a suspension. It’s not due to a lack of intelligence; it’s a deficit of character and moral development. But the lesson is not just for the offender; it’s also how we define what behavior we, as a society, deem unacceptable.

What does it say to the students who stepped up and reported the incident – at the risk of reprisal – that the administration has done nothing? What does it say to the rest of the student body? And what does it say to the community? Antisemitic remarks are no big deal in Collier County schools? In Florida? In this country? Whose responsibility is it to stand up, speak out, and demand accountability? How bad would it be if we just let it go?

While it’s easy to dismiss this incident as an insensitive off-the-cuff remark, hate speech and hate crimes grow out of hate thought. I am not disillusioned to believe that an article about a single comment will create change. But I do believe that we perpetuate the normalization of antisemitism when we are anything short of outragedwhen someone jokes about the dehumanization and systemic extermination of millions of people.

Perhaps no one captures the significance of this more than 96-year-old Holocaust survivor, Marian Turski. In a 2020 ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Turski explained how easily unthinkable horror evolves into normality.

Auschwitz did not fall suddenly from the skies, it was all tiny steps approaching until what happened here behind me did happen. Tears for the past are useless if accompanied by indifference in the present towards minorities experiencing exclusion, racism, and related violence. Do not be indifferent.

– Marian Turski

I literally cannot think of a reasonable defense, explanation, justification for this comment in our classrooms or anywhere for that matter. And I’m struggling with that skinny little line between “indifferent” and “complicit.” As my friend and highly respected educator, Jeff Ikler commented, “That which goes misunderstood and undiscussed today will rise to the surface down the road as ignorance and hate.”

Indeed, the Holocaust is rooted in ignorance and hate… and I’d submit indifference. An evil ideology became an inconceivable reality largely thanks to a lot of really good people who failed to stand up and speak out.

It kind of makes those Collier County kids seem more heroic… and their school leaders even more pathetic.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Melissa: This makes me want scream and pull my hair out, what little I have left. In reality, what it makes me want to do is copy the actions of people, jewish or not, in whatever town that was years ago who placed a menorah in their windows and burned candles every night. If we move to Florida I may have to introduce myself as a jewish trans person with black ancestors and see who embraces me and who doesn’t. Kidding aside, it really is up to us lily white, straight, vocal, recovering christians to stand up to fascism wherever it raises its ugly head. See you in a few weeks!