Nazi salute, antisemitic lessons and conspiracy theories embraced by the likes of Kanye West taught at a Hayward high school

A 10th grade teacher has been placed on leave after teaching antisemitism — two months after it was initially reported to the school.

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A Hayward high school teacher accused of spreading antisemitic conspiracies and making the Heil Hitler salute during classes has been placed on administrative leave this week after students complained to the district about the lessons late last year.

Though students alerted both school and district staff about English teacher Henry Bens’ curriculum in December, the teacher continued to instruct his 10th graders until this week, according to teachers and students at Mt. Eden High School. The school is now on break, but according to the Hayward Unified School District, Bens will not be returning to the classroom on Monday.

The controversy comes amid an alarming rise in antisemitism fueled recently, in part, by celebrities such as Kanye West and NBA star Kyrie Irving. Last year, Irving promoted an extremist documentary film that the Hayward teacher later featured on social media.

“He told us: You’re willfully blind,” said one of his students, 16-year-old Myldret Vazquez. “He said he was going to help us uncover the other side of the story.”

As first reported by the Jewish News of Northern California, Bens taught Elie Weisel’s Holocaust memoir, Night, alongside photocopies of The Hidden Tyranny, an antisemitic text by Holocaust-denier Benjamin Freedman. According to Vazquez, Bens told students to alternate reading portions of the material out loud and guided them to highlight specific sections.

At first, Vazquez was confused: She was being told that a secret organization of Jewish people was controlling the mass media, blackmailing American presidents and instigating war. Vazquez left class determined not to read on — but, worried that there would be a test on the topic, she finished the assignment when she got home.

“I continued to read through it, and I began to understand it a little bit more,” Vazquez said. “And then I was like, ‘Is that possible?’ ”

Ultimately, Vazquez decided it was not. She let Carmelita — her dachshund puppy — rip up her copy of The Hidden Tyranny. But Ruchita Verma, a senior at Mt. Eden who tutors 10th graders at the school, said she’s heard multiple stories of students believing Bens’ instruction.

“Students were saying, ‘Well you know, the Holocaust wasn’t even real,’ ” said Verma, referring to a story she’d been told by another classmate. “(They said) ‘What my teacher (Bens) is telling us is what we should all look into.’ ”

Bens did not respond to repeated requests for comment via phone call or email. The school district is now conducting an investigation into his instruction. Lauren McDermott, who leads communications for the Hayward Unified School District, said she did not know if or when Bens will return to Mt. Eden.

“We take these allegations very seriously, and the teacher alleged to have made such statements and used inappropriate materials is currently on a leave of absence,” said the district.

But according to Heather Eastwood, another English teacher at Mt. Eden, the administration repeatedly said they couldn’t do anything about Bens’ curriculum because of “academic freedom” — the idea that teachers have a right to express ideas without interference or professional disadvantage.

“They’ve also been saying they can’t do anything to discipline him because the union will protect him,” Eastwood said. “I said to an administrator: That’s the same thing as saying you’re not going to prosecute someone for a crime because they are going to have a defense attorney. That’s not how it works.”

Some students also feel something should have been done sooner. Two 10th graders who had complained about Bens were moved to another classroom, but those who remained also began to speak up. They recorded his lectures, took photos of their assignments and spoke out at school board meetings, urging the district to take action on not just The Hidden Tyranny assignment but other things the teacher said in class. And they created a Google Form to poll their classmates about their experiences in Bens’ lessons.

“Multiple students have come forward to share that they are in a learning space in which their teacher performs the Hitler salute,” Verma told the school board last week. “We are asking for you to help make our school a better place by ensuring our students are in safe classrooms.”

Vazquez said Bens made that salute multiple times in the classroom and — referring to alleged Israeli war crimes during a lecture on Palestine — asked students to consider what they would do if Bens broke into a house, killed all the men and raped all the women.

“If I was alive during Hitler’s time, I would have an interview with him,” said Bens in an audio file that was recorded by his students. “I would let him share his views.”

She also said the teacher told his students he was worried that everyone on Earth would become gay and that, ultimately, the population of the world would die out. Multiple LGBTQ+ students were in the classroom for that conversation, Vazquez said.

Bens’ social media profiles highlight materials — including Hebrews to Negroes, a film largely accepted as antisemitic — that are connected to the Black Hebrew Israelite religious sect. Black Hebrew Israelites do not align themselves with Judaism but claim that African Americans are the descendants of an ancient tribe in Israel. And though not all Black Hebrew Israelites are antisemitic, extremists within the movement “believe white Jews are perpetuating identity theft,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Bens, who is Black, is a pastor at Congregation Rehoboth in Alameda, a synagogue that celebrates shabbat and uses Hebrew characters in its religious readings, as documented by its Facebook live streams. In the “About” section, the synagogue states they are followers of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus.

The Black Hebrew Israelite movement has grown in America since West and Irving latched onto some of its more extreme ideologies. After Irving shared the film Hebrews to Negroes on social media last year, he was suspended by the Brooklyn Nets for eight basketball games. He returned to the court in November, and outside the stadium, a group of Black Hebrew Israelites marched in celebration.

“We are the real Jews, and that’s some good news,” the crowd chanted.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, West’s influence has led to at least 30 antisemitic incidents since October of 2022, building on a spike nationwide. During 2021, antisemitic assaults, harassment and vandalism hit an all-time high in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The organization recorded a total of 2,717 incidents throughout that year — a 34% increase from 2020.

“We hear on a weekly basis about really disturbing antisemitic incidents that take place here, even in the Bay Area,” said Teresa Drenick, the ADL’s deputy regional director. “But to see a teacher in one of our public schools assigning and teaching from a text of this nature, that shocked all of us.”

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News

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