Surrounded by his closest friends during his bachelor party in Lake Tahoe, California, Michael Mermelstein woke up to the news of the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots. He was both shocked and inspired. He got home and immediately applied to law school.
“Seeing the return of the ideas that my grandfather sued against and has worked tirelessly against, seeing the return of that in such a dramatic way really personalized that it was time for me to be involved in a way, with my family’s history of law,” Mermelstein said.
Mermelstein is a law student at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law, the president of the Jewish Law Student Association, a third-generation Holocaust survivor and has been dealing with anti-Semitism in Orange County since he was young.
Mermelstein’s mother is a lawyer and his grandfather, Mel Mermelstein, is a Holocaust survivor who went to court to prove to deniers that the Holocaust happened.
“He ended up winning the lawsuit in California, which made the Holocaust a legal fact in the court system,” Mermelstein said. “It was the first time that it was recognized in the judicial system.”
Mermelstein is the president of the Chapman chapter of the American Constitution Society and vice president of Auschwitz Study Foundation, his grandfather’s Holocaust education non-profit organization.
Mermelstein grew up in Long Beach, California, and moved to Huntington Beach, where he attended Ethel Dwyer Middle School. At that time, Mermelstein did not attend synagogue and was not very attached to being Jewish.
“When I got to Huntington Beach, having a Jewish last name was an issue. People made Holocaust related jokes and identified me as Jewish, based on my last name,” Mermelstein said. “At least on one occasion, I was beaten unconscious by a kid. The culture of anti-Semitism is something I have experienced very directly.”
With recent white supremacist activity at Chapman, Mermelstein does not 100 percent agree with the way in which administration has addressed it, but he appreciates the school’s efforts to make the school safe and inclusive.
“Extraordinary times call for bold steps,” Mermelstein said. “I am heartened that even though the administration has limitations to what they can do in tricky situations like this, they have empowered student groups at the law school to speak out and put on events around issues of white nationalist violence and the benefits of a diverse and thriving community.”
When he saw the white nationalist posters on campus, Mermelstein was not surprised due to Orange County’s history of white supremacist activity and current anti-Semitic climate in the U.S.
“Our county and our country are really in a particular crisis. It’s not just Chapman, there is a video of the Pacifica High School students celebrating these awful traditions. Last year, there was the Newport Harbor High School party and in the last year there have been two synagogue shootings,” Mermelstein said. “My synagogue has a police officer there on Friday nights making sure I don’t get murdered. That’s a regular factor in religious life right now.”