At school I was picked on for being Jewish. It’s no better today.
Save articles for later
Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.
School grounds can feel like unsafe places. It’s something I’m aware of because I am an education reporter – but also because I am Jewish.
At school I had coins tossed at my feet, in the anticipation that as a Jew I’d stingily pick them up and pocket them.
I was careful whom I told about my real identity – to certain people I classed Shabbat as “Friday night dinner”. I’d pretend I had plans on Saturday mornings instead of disclosing the real reason: that I was actually going to synagogue to prepare for my Bat Mitzvah. This as a 12-year-old girl.
As we negotiated the trials of adolescence there lurked the feeling that we needed to hide our identity, knowing our families were murdered because of who they were and the worry that we’d be targeted because of it.
Being Jewish is a spectrum, some have ancestry but don’t identify, some may be atheist but culturally Jewish, or religious and anti-Israel. To bullies, none of that matters.
When he went to school my husband Andrew, who only found out about his Jewish ancestry as a teenager, was called “An-Jew”. Other students told him that they’d kill and rape his Jewish grandmother who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. They were jokes, of course.
It’s worrying that in the almost 20 years since I went to school, things have not changed. In some cases they are worse.
My experience pales in comparison to the emails and stories I received last week after sharing with Sunday Age readers the story of three Jewish students who were pulled out of school because of antisemitism. Some of them were hate emails, but others were people willing to share their own experiences.
One reader wrote that he was verbally and physically abused from the very first day of primary school right through to the end of grade 6.
“Thirteen years of terror that I had to learn to live with,” he said.
“Trying to report any incident was not a good idea as it was not just fellow students who put their boots in, but teachers as well.”
A 15-year-old student at a state school in Melbourne’s south-east said she had experienced and witnessed “extreme antisemitism” at her school.
When she was in year 7 Nazi symbols were drawn on face masks and over the school, but she said this year had been the worst.
She was in a classroom with three other students who started talking about student backgrounds.
“They knew I was Jewish and started talking about how Hitler did right, and my great-grandparents should’ve died like the rest of their family, so I wouldn’t be in that moment, then and there,” she said.
“I told the teacher. The girl afterwards told me to my face that ‘she doesn’t like them Jews because they are scammers and liars’.”
The school asked the student to write her a letter to apologise, but she said she had ChatGPT write it.
“There was also an instance where a boy said he wanted to gas me and my Jewish classmate out of nowhere,” she said.
The teachers were also antisemitic, she said.
“This school praises itself for having children from 85 countries and yet this form of racism is overused.”
It’s a real concern for many Victorian Jewish families, who steadily weigh up whether they send their children to state school because they worry their child will be targeted.
Jewish Community Council of Victoria president Daniel Aghion said they were aware of a small number of antisemitic incidents in Victoria schools, but any incident of antisemitism was one too many.
Even so, he didn’t think there was an undercurrent of antisemitism in state schools, and they were instead unrelated incidents.
The organisation has engaged with government, Catholic and independent schools and worked with the Department of Education, Courage to Care and the Jewish Museum of Australia to roll out an optional training program for school staff about antisemitism, which has been available since April.
He said while a teenage student’s cruel taunt about gassing may seem no different from commenting on a student’s weight or haircut, “for the recipient, it means so much more”.
“What it is saying is: you are an ‘other’, who should not exist.”
“That’s why it’s so heinous and that’s why … it’s not acceptable in any way it sits, even in an unthinking schoolyard taunt.”
A Department of Education spokesperson said it takes antisemitic behaviour extremely seriously, that Holocaust education was mandatory in years 9 and 10, and taught in other year levels through texts in subjects like English.
The spokesperson said teachers must report any incident that impacts on student wellbeing and safety. The hotline for students and parents to report racism, the BullyStoppers initiative, included a guidance for schools to prevent racist bullying, a partnership with the Gandel Foundation and the Courage to Care’s Upstander Programs, which offers tools to tackle racism, bullying and prejudice.
After my story last week, I also received an email from an Asian student in year 9 at another secondary school who said she was called an “Asian slave” and “Asian eyes”, and asked, “do you know where my shoes come from? You must work in factories.”
Telling her coordinator didn’t make a difference.
“The bullying didn’t stop to the point I could no longer go to school, so I would secretly wag school,” she said.
She asked for the students to be removed, but was told it couldn’t be done and that they’d continue logging it.
“They moved on like it was all okay. I went into therapy twice a week,” she said.
She doesn’t feel the school did enough to protect her, that her experience wasn’t “bad enough” to contact their parents about it.
It’s these experiences, and the lack of action, this “othering” that has really significant consequences.
I hope my two-year-old son doesn’t feel he has to hide who he is. It’s hard not to be concerned about whether he will experience the same antisemitism in school that these students faced, or that I faced as a child.
Racism and prejudice, in any form, against any minority, needs to be stamped out. It requires leadership and education, and that can start in the schoolyard.
Nicole Precel is an education reporter.
The Opinion newsletter is a weekly wrap of views that will challenge, champion and inform your own. Sign up here.
Most Viewed in National
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article