My children have never felt the need to hide their Jewishness. That’s the heart of it, I suppose. A few months ago, a boy picked up his books and declared, ‘I’m not sitting next to the Jewish girl’, before moving to another seat.
When she told me about it, my daughter, who is 14, said the kid had just been seeking attention. It was a one-off, she said. She didn’t want me to contact the school. So I decided to let it go; the lesson for her, perhaps, was that this stuff happens in life.
Thinking about it, it had happened once before, a few years ago. It was Chanukah, and my son had decided to wear his kippah to school. He was only seven or eight at the time. In the playground, a kid had said: ‘You’re a Jew. I hate Jews.’
It was alarming at the time. But I had thought that they were isolated incidents. My kids brushed them off. Last night, however, in a conversation with my son, I was shocked to discover that they were only the tip of the iceberg.
These days, apparently, a favourite school trick is to ask my 12-year-old son if he’s ‘a Jew’. When he nods, the kids reply, ‘heil Hitler’. It happens about three times a week, my son told me. Sometimes they simply ask, ‘is your sister a Jew?’ and laugh. Or they hoot, ‘Jew, Jew, Jew,’ when they see my kids in the corridor.
The school has a problem with swastikas. People think it’s funny to scratch them into tables and walls, and the teachers don’t do anything about it. There was a craze recently to draw a swastika on your hand in chalk and slap somebody on the back, so the imprint is left on their blazer.
Now, this isn’t an inner city comprehensive. It’s a state school in Hampshire that is consistently praised by Ofsted and gets good results. The behaviour is generally good, and the children are largely middle-class. These days, you couldn’t hope for a better education without paying for it.
Which is partly why it came as such a surprise. My children seem to think it’s more about idiocy than malice. When my son objects to the taunts, the other kids respond, ‘relax, it’s only dark humour’. They just think it’s all a bit of a laugh. Maybe they needed an assembly, I said. Some education. Maybe a visit from a Holocaust survivor. My son smiled ruefully and shook his head.
I asked him if it made him feel uncomfortable. He said that it did, but it wasn’t so bad. He’d never been punched or kicked (not because he’s Jewish, anyway). He wouldn’t name any of the main culprits, and begged me not to do anything about it. It would only make things worse.
It is true that modern secondary schools are rather more unreconstructed than people think. The kids routinely call each other ‘gay’ as an insult, for example, and the law of the jungle dominates pretty much as it always did. But this feels different.
I genuinely don’t know what to do. On several occasions in the past, I’ve steamed in to deal with a problem at school, ignoring my children’s pleas. It hasn’t always gone well. I’ve learned that you have to respect the adolescent ecosystem, or you can end up causing further embarrassment and making things worse.
Yet to stand by and do nothing? That doesn’t feel right. I want to help my kids be strong in their Jewish identity, to stand up to bullies wherever they are found. But on this occasion, it’s hard to know how to apply such principles.
Latest figures reveal that anti-Semitism is soaring in Britain. February’s Community Security Trust (CST) report shows that anti-Jewish hate crime hit an all-time high last year. The total level of incidents rose by 34 per cent to 2,255, the highest ever recorded. Jew-hate incidents were reported to every single police force bar one.
The problem is particularly bad in education. Perhaps it is the dominance of ‘woke’ ideology, which seems to carry a dim view of Jews. Latest statistics from the CST disclose that anti-Semitism on campus rose by 59 per cent last year, reaching record levels.
Like many Jewish people, at times like these, I find myself daydreaming about moving to Israel (I did it quite a lot before Jeremy Corbyn was dumped by the electorate). In Israel, ironically enough, daily anti-Semitism plays little part in most people’s lives. Synagogues often have no security, even in Judea and Samaria. Yet in the last two weeks, a sudden spate of stabbing, shooting and car ramming attacks has claimed multiple lives in the country.
It is too early to establish whether this is a wave of Isis-inspired violence or if it has been orchestrated by Iran over social media. There is evidence of both, but the trend has yet to become clear. Either way, Jew-hatred in Israel – as in France and other European countries – often turns deadly. In Britain, thank God, we have seen much less of that.
Thinking back, I faced quite a lot of hassle as a kid. I grew up in an Orthodox community, so I was walking around the streets visibly Jewish, which made me a target. I got into the habit of removing my kippah when I went past pubs. I was attacked quite disturbingly once, and taunted and mocked regularly. The school I attended faced frequent bomb threats, meaning that evacuation was a familiar occurrence. On one occasion, the letter bomb was real.
I’d never dreamed that my children – living in Winchester rather than London, in the third decade of the 21st century, without being outwardly Jewish or observant – would face anything remotely similar. It was the Eighties back then, I told myself. Standards were lower. More fool me.
Some things have changed, I suppose. When speaking to my son, I asked him if the kids behaved this way towards other minorities at school. Black children, for example. His eyes widened. ‘Of course not,’ he said, a note of irony in his voice. ‘That would be racist.’
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