Antisemitism up 42% in 2021: Community responds to swastikas, homophobic slurs in Falmouth

FALMOUTH — The first thing Joe Olenick did when a swastika and two homophobic slurs were recently spray- painted on blacktop surrounding the Falmouth Skate Park was clean them up.

"It was all painted over by the Parks Department that day ― right away. The next day I got a text from the Parks Department head saying that they had done it again ― in the same spot," said Olenick, director of the Falmouth Recreation Department.

When the graffiti first appeared on Nov. 14, according to an email sent to the Times from the Falmouth Police Department, the swastika was written in black spray paint, over bright yellow paint ― the symbol of hate seeming to radiate from the ground.

The Rev. Nell Fields
The Rev. Nell Fields

In pictures provided to the Times by Nell Fields, minister of the Waquoit Congregational Church, homophobic slurs can also be seen in black spray paint over bright yellow coloring.

While the homophobic slurs didn't make it back to the skate park on Tuesday, the swastika did reappear ― painted backwards in the same color paint, according to Olenick.

"There's always been graffiti painted at the skate park ― the occasional bad words and stuff but 98% of the time it's pretty talented graffiti," he said. "But what possessed them to do that this time, I have no idea."

Because Falmouth is considered a "no place for hate community that cares,” said Douglas DeCosta, lieutenant at the police department in an email, the department initiated an investigation.

DeCosta didn't immediately return calls or emails from the Times for comment.

No Place for Hate Falmouth speaks on what can be done next

When Fields, who is also chair of the No Place for Hate Falmouth steering committee, heard about the graffiti, she rushed to the skate park, and caught the images on her camera phone. From there, she met with the steering committee to discuss her concerns.

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"Our kids skate there. People walk their dogs near there and we want to let them know that this is not right," Fields said. "These are symbols of systemic hate. If we do not address this and if we remain silent, we normalize what has happened."

Representatives from No Place for Hate Falmouth, including Fields, also met with Henry St. Julien, the Falmouth Public Schools director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and Lori Duerr, superintendent of Falmouth Public Schools, to talk about how the graffiti could affect children, and the potential teachable moments that can come out of the incident.

Henry St. Julien is the Falmouth Public Schools director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
Henry St. Julien is the Falmouth Public Schools director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

"This can be an ongoing conversation and not a one-off," she said. "It's shameful and we must teach all the history behind that.”

For St. Julien, there is no room for inaction or neutrality.

"If we don't do anything, then we are not anti-racist. Action has to happen," St. Julien said.

St. Julien and Falmouth administrators have been working since the beginning of the school year on developing systematic and sustained steps aimed at accepting all students, he said.

Falmouth Schools Superintendent Lori Duerr
Falmouth Schools Superintendent Lori Duerr

"In the primary school, we want to promote positive relationships with our Jewish community and LGBTQ plus community and for secondary students, we want to dig deep," said St. Julien. "We want to have group discussions and talk about what they want to do and promote love in the community."

One of St. Julien's biggest worries were symptoms of vicarious trauma ― feelings of grief, anxiety, sadness, irritability and anger ― that students who witnessed the graffiti could have experienced.

"There are kids who are Jewish and others who identify as gay that could be wondering if Falmouth is a safe place," he said. "Even a student from the majority culture ― when they see these symbols ― they are wondering what's up with their community."

More:Confronting hate: Cape group raises awareness

Antisemitic incidents increase 42% in 2021

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 155 incidents of antisemitic assault, harassments and vandalism reported in New England in 2021.

In the same year, antisemitic incidents increased by 42% in New England, which outpaced the rest of the country by 34%. Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League reported 2,717 antisemitic incidents in 2021.

While numbers are still preliminary for 2022, the Anti-Defamation League keeps track of data through a heat map, which calculated 73 incidents of antisemitism in Massachusetts, and 310 incidents of white supremacist propaganda.

Peggy Shukur, deputy regional director of the Anti Defamation League, said the organization has been auditing and tracking antisemitic incidents nationally since 1979.

"There are a number of myths and tropes that are very common to antisemitism that are running the gamut," she said. "It's important for people to understand the pervasiveness of these myths in America and also understand how to respond when they hear those myths and tropes."

Other incidents, in 2019: Second swastika incident confirmed in Cape Cod town

All people have the capacity to internalize false information about Jewish people or the Jewish faith, said Shukur, which is why education is key. In November 2021, the state Legislature passed "An Act concerning genocide education," to provide education to middle and high school students on the history of genocide and to promote the teaching of human rights issues.

The bill, which also included the creation of a Genocide Education Trust Fund, is an important one, said Shukur, and will support the development of teaching materials and provide professional development training for educators.

But, it can't end there, Shukur said.

"As adults, we need to be ready to to speak up and really model the right behavior," she said. "A lot of these instances are taking place in front of adults and if they don't know how to handle it, how could they teach a child how to handle it?"

For Fields, it's important for the Falmouth community to come together ― to learn about each other ― and make one another feel safe.

"What kind of hatred fuels us?" said Fields. "As a minister we are committing more than ever that our church is a safe place for everyone. That means not only accepting people but encouraging them and celebrating them."

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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Falmouth continues to confront spray-painted swastikas, slurs