A depiction of San Juan Capistrano delivering a sermon from a circa 1470 illuminated manuscript Credit: Johannes Capistranus by unknown artist, c. 1470. Public Domain via Wikimedia

“Every student and employee in the Capistrano Unified School District is entitled to a safe school environment free from discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying.” At least that’s what the official school policy tells us.

Yet this vision of a normal school environment is a fantasy because the South Orange County district is named after a virulent anti-Semite and avowed racist.

Most people including school officials and teachers are ignorant–or at least pretend to be ignorant–of the atrocities Saint John of Capistrano committed against Jewish people and other minorities.

Capistrano was a violent man known as the “Scourge of the Jews.” He incited and led pogroms, or lynch mob-style riots, driving entire peaceful communities of Jews like me into the wilderness of the Alps to die of exposure to the cold or starvation. History records that he burned Jews at the stake as a horrific finale to his sermons. The school district needs to fix this right now and stop honoring him.

I’ve heard the argument that the district is only named after the Mission San Juan Capistrano and not the person. But had there instead been a mission named after Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, or Josef Mengele, the school district would have avoided honoring these criminals in any way.

In our society, people get away with innumerable acts of bigotry under the guise of religion, and in no way does San Juan Capistrano represent a public school education. In fact, Saint Capistrano would have burned about 90% of the books in my school’s library, including such classics as The Diary of Anne Frank and Night by Elie Wiesel.

So, why is it ok that the people tasked with educating the young are allowed to turn a blind eye to the past?

People have become too complacent in this affluent Christian community to educate their children on all aspects of history. As Jesus preached: “the last shall be first, and the first last…” California has become a pluralistic society over the last decade, so renaming schools and school districts after genuine heroes is long overdue.

The official school logo which ironically bears a dove. Credit: CUSD

I propose that the Capistrano Unified School District instead be named the Cornelia Unified School District after Cornelia ten Boom.

Ten Boom was, unlike Capistrano, a real Christian.

She was a writer and watchmaker in Holland who, at great personal risk, hid Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Nazi soldiers caught her and sent her to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She survived torture and hard labor to write The Hiding Place, an autobiography about how God inspired her good deeds, and she later moved to Orange County.

As a kid who has been called a penny-pincher, a dirty Jew, and a kike by fellow students, my message to local teachers is they need to start teaching tolerance. As far as role models go for the district’s students, one individual killed as many Jews as possible in the name of God and the other saved them.

As my classmates and I go back to school this week, we need to put an end to this cycle of ignorance. The inaction of the Capistrano Unified School District thus far in addressing why it is named after someone who also went by the moniker the “Scourge of the Jews” speaks volumes to the way the American education system fails young people like me.

For Orange County to progress, it must be self-reflective. We have this notion that a history of racism is confined to the South and that intolerance only exists far away from here. Parts of the South are now challenging their long tradition of hatred by tearing down confederate monuments and renaming schools.

We don’t have many confederate monuments here, but we need to change the name of this school district. While it’s true that the best time to properly name the Capistrano Unified School District was in 1965 when it was founded, the second-best time is now.

In one of the first book burnings by the Nazis on May 10, 1933, a copy of the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine’s play Almansor was torched. One line from the 1821 play stands out as critical: “Where they burn books, they will end up burning people.” Heine’s European ancestors were targets of San Juan Capistrano’s murderous rampages, and it’s no coincidence that the poet predicted the events of the Holocaust.

When it comes to the history of anti-Semites, San Juan Capistrano is among the worst because he helped maintain the unbroken chain of anti-Jewish hatred in Europe that gave rise to Hitler.

So, what is the school board waiting for, and when will they do the right thing? Rename the Capistrano Unified School District to the Cornelia Unified School District now.

Gabriel Levin is a writer, artist, activist, and high school senior in the Capistrano Unified School District. He lives in Rancho Santa Margarita.

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