Much has been said and written about rising antisemitism in Europe and the United States, including in public schools. The situation for the Jewish community in Australia is also extremely grave and trending in the wrong direction, especially for students.
In the past two years, there has been a 41.9% increase in antisemitic activity nationwide in Australia, according to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Many of those incidents have involved not just college students, but elementary and high school students as well.
In 2019, an Australian Jewish 12-year-old was filmed being forced to kiss a Muslim student's foot “because he is a Jew” in a viral video uploaded to TikTok by the perpetrators, and threatened with violence if he did not comply. The Muslim children bullying the Jewish teen were his classmates at Cheltenham Secondary College in Melbourne, but since the incident occurred immediately after school hours the school refused to take action. The Jewish child had also received text messages telling him he would be “slaughtered,” which were being handled by the police.
For more than a year, the Australian Jewish community also has been dealing with a major lawsuit against the state itself over its mishandling of antisemitism. The case, which only recently heard closing statements and is expected to receive a formal judgment in the coming months, involves multiple Jewish students who were harassed for years with antisemitism from their peers, while the school administrators did nothing – despite knowing about the problems.
A daily hell for Jewish students at school
Five former students at the Brighton Secondary College, a public high school, sued the state and the school in the Federal Court of Australia for negligence and failing to protect them from racial discrimination over the time period of 2013-2020. Among the examples described in the lawsuit are speeches against racism by principal Richard Minack which included references to Jews being “subhuman” and praise of Minack’s own father, who was a Nazi.
In response, the state of Victoria has denied all allegations of negligence, bullying and discrimination.
The students at Brighton also were targeted with antisemitic graffiti, including “Heil Hitler'' written on a locker and drawings of swastikas on an ongoing basis. One of the Jewish students involved in the lawsuit reported that he was pushed into the toilet cubicles by a group of students, punched and had a knife held to his throat.
For years, the former students endured antisemitic physical attacks, and one student was even told that he could not wear a kippa in the school. The antisemitism was coming from both administrators and fellow students, the students say, creating an unbelievably hostile environment for young Australian Jews.
Yet when the issue was made public, nothing changed.
Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), spoke to Ynetnews about the case, since the families involved are not permitted to comment. “I was obviously horrified and appalled by what was happening,” Abramovich says.
He explains that children have experienced numerous incidents of horrific antisemitism that the larger Jewish community worldwide simply isn’t hearing about. For example, at Hawthorn West Primary School in Victoria, a 5-year-old Jewish student was called “Jewish vermin” because he was circumcised. When the bullying was brought to the attention of administrators, “the suggestion from the school was that he use the staff bathroom (which he did) only to have the staff tell him he isn’t permitted, and so he went back to the regular bathroom.” Abramovich says.
The culture of indifference at the administrative level is one of the most alarming concerns for Australian Jewish students and their families.
“There are principals and teachers who are in complete denial about the scale of the problem. When told of the ordeals Jewish pupils are experiencing, they are either deliberately indifferent to their plight, or they accept, excuse or choose not to act on complaints,” explains Abramovich.
In some cases, victims of antisemitic bullying in Melbourne primary schools – who requested not to be named for their own security – were told flat out by administrators they were lying.
The inability of administrators to see the problem of antisemitism is a byproduct of institutionalized antisemitism, according to experts. “School leadership is not sympathetic to the Jewish parents … and intolerance is spreading like wildfire,” says Abramovich.
Under Abramovich, the ADC is working overtime to push back against institutionalized antisemitism, but it’s an uphill battle. The historic lawsuit against Brighton Secondary College is a major step toward exposing and rooting out antisemitism, but the Australian educational system needs to acknowledge that the problem exists before it can deal with it.
“I think they need to accept the truth that antisemitism in primary schools in Brighton [and throughout Australia] is a crisis. There are weekly reports of Jewish students being bullied and I am deeply concerned we are running out of time,” says Abramovich, who added that “antisemitism is at its most dangerous when it is not spoken about, soft-pedaled, whitewashed and justified.”