Imagine being the only Jewish boy or girl in your class.  Imagine having money thrown at you and being teased in the schoolyard with epithets like “stingy Jew.”  A thing of the past, you thought, but it’s happening today in the schoolyards of Australia’s public schools.  A study presented at Bar-Ilan University in 2017 found the behaviour widespread and the saddest part is, nothing is being done about it.

Religious instruction is given for half an hour a week, but the study found it woefully inadequate to educate young students about Judaism.  Surprisingly, the children loved it because it was the one time and place in school where they felt comfortable being Jewish. 

Anti-semitism in schools is an old story.  When I lived in the New York City area, twenty-five years ago, a friend’s daughter had a swastika carved into her desk and a teacher who was unsympathetic to her distress.  I moved to a heavily Jewish suburb which even had a large Jewish Community Centre, certain that nothing like that would happen to my children.  I was wrong.

In Junior High School, a book was assigned to my child’s English class about Israel in Roman times, when Jesus was preaching.   The Jewish heroes of the story turned from fighting the Romans to following Jesus. 

I am not for censorship, but this was proselytising in a public school. I brought it to the attention of other Jewish parents and one woman in particular on the board of  the town’s Jewish Community Centre.  “Too busy” was her excuse as well as that of the other Jewish parents I contacted, so I was forced to tackle the issue alone.  

All I asked for was choice.  Let the students who felt uncomfortable, have the option of reading another book.  This was adamantly refused.   I did win one victory: the school suspended the obligatory reading until the situation was resolved.

It took seven months, but only when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sent a strongly worded letter did the school back down.

For Charles Jacobs, the head of Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT,) the fight has been going on for seven years.  He faced not just Jewish apathy, but opposition and attack in his fight against the prejudicial curriculum of Newtown, Massachusetts. Some teacher training was funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia during which Education students were taught that Zionism has “little connection” to Jewish history and Israelis are like Nazis in their treatment of Palestinians.

Jacobs was personally censured by the Jewish Community Relations Council and when he and a group of Jewish parents turned to the ADL, instead of coming to their aid, it actually sided with the perpetrators!  If they had fulfilled their mission of fighting anti-semitism, the situation might have been resolved, but Jacob’s fight ended up in court and the Newtown schools agreed to eliminate the offensive material.  Soon after though, on 2 May 2018, a film portraying Jews as Nazi soldiers was shown at a school assembly during “Middle East Day.”

On 12 March 2019, the APT and Newtown parents filed a lawsuit against the Newtown school system to compel it to stop indoctrinating students with anti-Semitism and bigotry against Israel.  The case is making national headlines as it mirrors a situation that is occurring throughout the United States. College campuses are hot-beds of anti-Israel protests, but as anti-Semitism grows, the response of Jewish organisations seems to diminish.

When a Jewish child is shamed for being Jewish, it is not just that child being attacked, but every Jew.  If the Jewish community remains silent, it will continue, and it will proliferate.

If Jews don’t stand up for themselves, who will?

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Helen Applebaum
Helen Applebaum is an artist, writer, and teacher who has lived in New York City for most of her life. Her artwork is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Her articles have appeared in Women in the Arts newsletters, Art Times Journal, and Salt Magazine. She has visited Australia six times and plans to relocate there soon.

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