Hayward, CA – Students in 10th grade at a Hayward high school were given antisemitic conspiracy material by their English teacher, who on numerous occasions also made the “Heil Hitler” salute, students say.
Henry Bens, a teacher at Mt. Eden High School, introduced a required unit on the Holocaust memoir “Night,” by Elie Weisel, by handing out photocopies of a pamphlet called “The Hidden Tyranny” and asking students to annotate and mark the text, J. has learned.
“The Hidden Tyranny” is a 1978 hoax interview that purports to expose Jewish secrets for world domination.
Students say Bens told his classes that the truth had been hidden from them and that he was helping them “remove the blindfold.”
“His reasoning for teaching it was because he was like, oh, you guys are indoctrinated,” sophomore Jolene Sa told J.
Fellow English teacher Heather Eastwood learned of the material when Bens handed a copy of the text to a colleague, she said. She told J. she was appalled.
“This is something that was written as hate speech, and it continues to be hate speech,” she said.
Eastwood and several colleagues immediately reported the material to the school administration and the Anti-Defamation League, which often works with schools on education around antisemitism.
J. reached out to the principal of Mt. Eden, the president of the school board, the district superintendent and the assistant superintendent for education, as well as Bens, but there was no immediate response from any of the parties. Students provided copies of the handout, as well as notes and recordings taken during class, to support their claims.
Teachers and students said they made multiple requests for action on the issue and for two months none was taken.
“They did nothing to discipline him,” Eastwood said.
The antisemitic lesson plan was reported in December. On Feb. 15, a school official sent an email to the teachers and students who had voiced concern, saying, “staff has been directed not to use said materials; District is working with staff to create activities to repair harm; District is following board policy for complaints.” Bens is still teaching.
At a school board meeting that evening, several faculty and students spoke out against the teacher.
Senior Ruchita Verma hasn’t been directly affected by the issue, but she told the board she feels the behavior is unacceptable. She’s stepped in to help students organize, take notes on Bens’ behavior and advocate at the district level.
“The situation, it’s not getting any better, it’s still escalating,” she told J. “Just last week, a lot of students came forward and told teachers and peers that he’s still doing ‘Heil Hitler,’ the Hitler salute, in his classroom, and it’s just not okay.”
Another student, currently a senior, said he’d seen the same kind of behavior two years ago when he took the same class.
“I ignored what he said then,” he told the board. “I’m not going to ignore it [when he’s] saying the same anti-Jewish hateful conspiracies I heard from him then.”
A 15-year-old student provided J. with a recording they said they made while in Bens’ classroom in which he responds to the allegations, telling students: “I’m not teaching antisemitism. When people start lying, remember this — some people are [so] blinded by what they believe or what they think, that they use kids to lie.”
Passages from “The Hidden Tyranny,” which purports to be an interview with a Jew who is exposing Jewish secrets, include “Most Jews do not like to admit it, but our god is Lucifer,” and “I was taught that we Jews must become lawyers so we could control and strangle the courts, and even the judges, unless they were Jews.”
Another student in his class told J. they felt Bens was manipulative and said he often claimed other teachers were lying to students. This student also felt concerned that some of their more easily influenced peers would believe the antisemitic screed. Verma agreed.
“He creates an unsafe space and he’s transphobic, homophobic, sexist,” she said. “And I just feel really bad for these kids who have to continuously be in these spaces with him.”
There are very few Jewish students at Mt. Eden, according to Eastwood, who is not Jewish.
The Hayward high school has close to 2,000 students, broken down roughly as 57% Hispanic, 25% Asian, 8% black and 4% white.
Bens, who has taught at Mt. Eden for more than a decade, is also the pastor of a church in Alameda whose Facebook page lists it as a “synagogue” called Congregation Rehoboth with a header photo saying “Shabbat Shalom.” (The previous name was the Rehoboth Christian Fellowship.)
A Facebook post dated Nov. 6, 2022, calls 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust “converted Jewish people, whose ancestral origins are in southern Russia.”
The accounts also reference the three-hour film “Hebrews to Negroes,” which presents the conspiracy theory that Jews have stolen the identity of Black people, who are in fact the “true Jews,” a theory connected to the Black Hebrew Israelites. The film was in the news a few months ago after NBA star Kyrie Irving posted about it, causing a furor.
At Mt. Eden, one group of students took it upon themselves to create a form and send it to their classmates asking for anonymous feedback on Bens’ teaching; the results were shared with J. One student wrote that Bens asked the class, “how can I be called antisemitic for the things I say related to Jews, even though semitic [in the dictionary] does not mention Jews at all?”
Another student made a voice recording allegedly of Bens that contained the following: “If I was alive during Hitler’s time, I would have an interview with him. I would let him share his view, as long as he wasn’t violent, as long as he wasn’t disrespecting in an abusive manner with his words, I would definitely let him share his view.”
“There aren’t two sides to Hitler,” said Eastwood, one of the teachers who reported the behavior. “There aren’t.”
Teresa Drenick said ADL reached out to the school district after being contacted by teachers and had one meeting. A second meeting was canceled and never rescheduled.
In a letter to the school board, Drenick said: “We have offered ADL resources to senior leaders of the Hayward Unified District Administration. However, those meetings and conversations failed to bring about any visible progress, and recently were cancelled.”
Drenick said ADL does not interfere in personnel decisions but wants to help the school mitigate the damage done to students by the misinformation.
“How are they going to be taught that the lessons of ‘The Hidden Tyranny’ are factually incorrect, historically incorrect, antisemitic and complete untrue?” she said. “That is where our focus lies.”
That’s one thing Verma would like to see, as well.
“Obviously, the kids have learned this, but we can bring awareness to sourcing, for example,” she said. “This author is a known denier of the Holocaust, and we can show them all these different pieces of evidence and show them different lesson plans that are credible, that have been researched.”
Eastwood, too, said that she is worried about the long-term effects of such teachings on the more than 100 teenagers Bens has in his classes each year.
“They don’t know when they’re being taught hate,” she said.
In August, over the objection of some Jewish groups, the Hayward school district announced that it would continue to supplement the state’s required ethnic studies curriculum with material from the Liberated Ethnic Studies Consortium. Worried about the consortium’s approach to Israel and Jewish issues, an ADL spokesperson said Hayward had “opened the schoolhouse doors to antisemitism and bigotry.”