“I GET emotional because it has been quite a year,” Karen* stumbles through tears.
Her father was a Holocaust survivor, and before he passed in 2012, he recorded his testimony on to CD. He shared the bullying he encountered as a 12 and 13-year-old in Poland, the antisemitism of the mid-1930s “that everyone was a bit blasé about then”.
“It seems that everyone is a little blasé about what’s going on now too,” adds Karen.
Her son, Taylor*, adores listening to the recordings of his late grandfather – and now, after the past six months, his zaida’s experiences resonate with him on a new and deeper level.
Taylor is the victim of an alleged series of cruel antisemitic incidents.
THE 12-year-old began high school at Cheltenham Secondary College at the beginning of the year. Taylor has a history playing junior football, and soon after school commenced, some of his new classmates remembered playing against him on the field.
“But as soon as they identified that Taylor played for AJAX, they identified him as Jewish, and that’s where it all started”, says Karen.
There was one ringleader in particular, and while term one passed without too much trouble, the school holidays saw a dramatic escalation.
The ringleader invited Taylor to the park for a kick of the footy with some of their classmates and a few boys from another school. He went along, but he discovered it was under a false pretence.
“He was suddenly threatened with violence by the ringleader,” tells Karen.
“He had the option of either getting beaten up by the nine boys … or kissing a Muslim’s feet,” her sentence trails into a sob.
Knowing that he would not to be able to fight off the boys, Taylor placed his knees on the ground and knelt to kiss the feet of the boy. Taylor didn’t tell anyone what happened, but the incident was photographed and videoed, and later posted on Instagram.
Unbeknown to Taylor, a few weeks later, the image made its way to his mother. Conscious of upsetting her son, Karen discreetly went to the school to discuss the matter. She says that she showed the photo, and expressed her concern over the intentions of the ringleader, but was met with an apathetic response.
“They said, Karen, it didn’t happen on school grounds. There is nothing we can do about it. Just go to the police if you think it is a matter for the police, and you know, we can’t really do much about banter.”
AFTER term two began, so did the antisemitic name-calling. “Jewish ape”, “Jewish n****r” and “Jewish gimp” were just some of the slurs hurled towards Taylor. He silently took the verbal abuse.
While catching the bus from school one afternoon, Taylor noticed he was being followed. Each day the same thing happened, so he befriended an older student to accompany him. Taylor would arrive home at the end of each day in a lather of sweat after running from the bus stop, but had just enough time to shower before Karen arrived home from work. He still remained silent.
The tension continued to mount. Then, in the school corridor one afternoon, Taylor was physically attacked “out of nowhere”. He was thrown into a locker, and tackled to the floor by the ringleader.
“He called Taylor a ‘cooked up Jewish c***, who belongs in Caulfield’ and proceeded to beat him up,” relays Karen.
“Taylor just copped it. He is a strong boy. Then he got to the point where he couldn’t cop it any more and put the ringleader into a body lock until some teachers broke it up.”
The ringleader, in a violent rage, was contained to a classroom. Taylor was taken to the sickbay – although he had no recollection of how he arrived there.
Taylor’s family doctor later explained to Karen that such a reaction was the result of an acute state of anxiety.
“To know your child was at that point, of not being able to remember, that scared me.
“He had been punched in the face. The whole left side of his back was bruised. He had a gouge of skin out of his shoulder.”
That evening, Karen took Taylor to Sandringham Hospital to be checked over and called chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, Dvir Abramovich. The following day, they visited the police, where photos were taken and a report was filed.
“That was really confronting, watching Taylor have to take his top off and have his injuries photographed.”
BUT it was the reaction of the school – both immediately and in the ensuing weeks – that left Karen bemused and ultimately, devastated.
They refused to label the incidents as antisemitic.
She shares that initially following the physical attack, Cheltenham Secondary called in a psychologist from the Department of Education and Training (DET) – who also happened to be Jewish – to speak with Taylor, while she was only notified “a few hours” after the incident.
When Karen arrived, she found herself in a room with the principal, vice-principal, headmaster, DET psychologist, and the school psychologist.
“I knew that something wasn’t right,” tells Karen. “The DET psychologist unequivocally said to me, ‘Karen, I wouldn’t be talking to any external agencies, and you probably want to keep at arm’s length on this one, because you’re a little bit of a helicopter-tiger-mum. I’d just let the school handle it.'”
“They didn’t even want to call it antisemitism,” says an exasperated Karen. “They didn’t want to call it bullying because if religious vilification happens one or more times, then they have to take some form of action.
“To avoid action, everything becomes an ‘isolated incident’, so then it is not bullying or religious vilification.”
Instead, the school’s solution was a five-day suspension of the ringleader while Taylor “had to learn coping mechanisms and how to be more resilient”.
The DET psychologist even recommended that Taylor swear back at his bullies in Hebrew – because “at least then he can’t get in trouble for swearing, and the other kids won’t know what he is saying”, relays Karen.
At the school’s request, Karen agreed for Taylor to be subsequently assessed by professionals. He was seen by Headspace, the family doctor, and the Child and Youth Mental Health Service at The Alfred. Their conclusions were all the same: Taylor was fine, but he had been “subjected to a school environment that is not conducive”.
“In fact, one of the guys at Headspace said, he is a frog in a toxic pond, and sometimes the best way to get through this, is to remove the frog, and put him in another pond.”
The comment was foreshadowing. With the knowledge that the main bully had been suspended, Taylor returned to school – only to be threatened by the bully’s older brother.
Karen retells, “He said, ‘You’re f***ed, mate. You are f***ed for what you’ve done.’ He also said to Taylor that if he moves school, he also has contacts at Parkdale, Bentleigh and Oakleigh South Secondary, and he wouldn’t be safe anywhere.”
That was Taylor’s final day at Cheltenham Secondary College.
ACCORDING to Karen, the school was hardly forthcoming in assisting in the police investigation and they “nearly had to get a warrant for the CCTV footage” of the attack on Taylor.
The eventual outcome was that the bully was issued a legal written caution.
“But there was no proof of the actual commentary, so there was nothing they could do as far as a hate crime went,” tells Karen. No apology was ever received.
The toll of the last few months have weighed heavily on Taylor and Karen, who is a single mum. Karen herself received anonymous abusive text messages, and during the ordeal, she was forced to take two weeks off work.
“I was as sick as a dog from stress. I broke out in a stress rash. My GP said, are you okay? And I said, I feel like I’ve got to be okay. I don’t have a choice.”
But the tight family are now rebuilding. With the assistance of Abramovich, a Jewish day school has offered a place to Taylor.
And in an odd twist of fate, in the midst of the enrolment process, Karen learned there was already a record of Taylor in the school’s system. Her father had taken the step of enrolling Karen’s children into the school before he passed away.
“He was adamant about the children going to a Jewish school, and said I think they’re going to be safer there where at least one commonality is that all the kids are Jewish.”
While some, including Taylor’s younger sister, may have shied away from their Jewishness, indeed, it has only strengthened Taylor’s connection to his identity. He now has his heart set on a big bar mitzvah. It is the silver lining in a dark cloud, Karen’s rabbi told her.
“Taylor could have really run away from our family’s heritage, with his experience, and my father being a Holocaust survivor. But he didn’t.
“He has totally turned it around, and wants to embrace his Yiddishkeit. That, really blows me away.
“My dad bought Taylor a tallis before he died – and I think we can pull that out of the cupboard now.”
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of parties concerned.