At a school board meeting in Southlake, Texas on Monday night, former student Jake Berman took the mic and uttered these powerful, and unfortunately necessary, words: “The facts are that there are not two sides of the Holocaust. The Nazis systematically killed millions of people.” He went on to describe his experience, which he said nearly drove him to suicide. “I received everything from jokes about my nose to gas chambers, all while studying for my bar mitzvah from a Holocaust survivor as my primary tutor,” Berman, 31, told the Carroll Independent School District Board. “I still struggle with the depression that started at Dawson Middle School in 2003 to this very day.”
Berman was there to share his experiences in light of Texas Senate Bill 3 (SB3), a law that passed this summer to regulate how schools in the state teach social studies — specifically America’s racist history. Last week, his former district found itself in the eye the SB3 storm when leaked audio from a teacher’s meeting caught an administrator instructing teachers to teach “opposing” perspectives on the Holocaust, to stay in accordance with the law. Two decades after his traumatizing experience, Berman knew he had to speak up. And in his first interview after the meeting, he explained why he feels “a moral obligation” to use his voice.
“The antisemitism piece obviously hits home for me because I’m Jewish, but I really tried to parlay it into what this law really is intended to do, which is whitewash the racism that still goes on in the state and in the country today,” Berman tells Rolling Stone the morning after his public comments, which have been viewed more than 65,000 times on Twitter.
“I wouldn’t have gone up there in a public forum and said what I said if I didn’t think it would have some sort of effect or impact,” says the 31-year-old, who now lives in nearby North Richland Hills, says. “The reception I’ve gotten this morning has just been overwhelmingly positive.”
If you’ve heard about any of the fights in schools across the nation over the teaching of Critical Race Theory, it’s in no small part because of Southlake, Texas. What started as a community response to a widely-circulated video of students chanting the n-word in 2019 ballooned last year in response to the country’s racial reckoning. Much of this came to light because of the NBC News podcast Southlake, which debuted in August and chronicled the feud’s origins, plus the contentious school board elections that played out as a proxy for people on both sides of the issue. (The Southlake school board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
While Southlake gives extensive examples of racism, and bigotry against LGBTQ/non-binary students, antisemitism never came up specifically on the show. But when school administrator Gina Praddy’s Holocaust comments went public, it struck a familiar cord with Berman. “I hold no ill-will towards her,” he says. “I don’t think she’s a Holocaust denier or anything like that. I think she just stepped in a pile of mud.”
Berman described himself as “the ‘Jewish kid’ growing up. “It wasn’t an issue until I got to middle school,” he said. “But when it got bad, it got pretty bad.”
The bullying started slowly, he says, with off-hand jokes about bagels, but eventually turned much darker, culminating in him opening his locker one day to a flurry of small sheets of papers covered in hand-drawn swastikas. While he’s quick to note that “middle school students don’t have the wherewithal to understand the gravitas that a Nazi swastika has,” the incident stays with him to this day.
At the time, he wasn’t aware of the district taking any action against the bullies or to implement systemic change, but he says they did their best to protect him. And his parents focused on him. “Their number one priority wasn’t solving any antisemitism issue or bullying issue within the school — it was the safety of their son.”
He transferred to a private school the following year, though his family remained in the town. Now, two decades later, problems of race and religion persist.
He hopes that, much like schools that defied the Texas governor’s mask mandates ban, one school — whether it’s Southlake or not — will defy the ahistorical law. “I think the mic cut off right before I got to say it, but I sort of implied that you’re at a crossroads, and you have the opportunity to be a leader as a school district — which you’ve long seen yourself as…If I were the superintendent, I would say ‘We’re not going to take part in this law.’”
He also hopes this incident will help others around the country will see how we’ve gone astray in trying to reinterpret history, but he says he’s not entirely convinced it can happen. “Unfortunately with the state of politics in the whole country, it seems like when you point out facts and logic and reason, for some reason the people on the other side of facts and logic and reason dig in deeper.”
Asked point blank if he thinks Southlake has a racism problem, Berman said, “I don’t know, because I don’t live there [anymore]. I would say from the outside looking in, it certainly appears that way.”