We are so much more than our victimhood

We are so much more than our victimhood

'If one Jewish child is afraid to declare their ethnic and religious identity in their school, that is one child too many'.

A 12-year-old Jewish student was forced to kiss the feet of a Muslim child in an antisemitic incident.
A 12-year-old Jewish student was forced to kiss the feet of a Muslim child in an antisemitic incident.

THE news spread literally around the world. Last week’s AJN cover story, detailing horrific antisemitic bullying of two children in Victorian public schools, reached the national and international media. Senior state and federal ministers responded with urgency.

Although we have not heard the schools’ sides of the stories, and while there is not yet enough information to determine a trend, what we do know is horrific enough. If one Jewish child is afraid to declare their ethnic and religious identity in their school, that is one child too many. If one teacher in a public school, who after telling their students that she is Jewish then receives children’s work adorned with swastikas (as was reported to my colleague) then something is very wrong. 

Antisemitic caricatures on a carnival float in Belgium earlier this year.

It is clear that antisemitism, which we thought was vanquished after reaching its nadir in the Holocaust, was merely sleeping, and is now reverting to its historical levels. From the Labour Party in the UK to parades in Belgium, from the streets of Paris to the classrooms of Melbourne, Jews are again a target for alienation and vilification. And those to whom we look to take action continue to maintain that Jew-baiting is not really antisemitism, and antisemitism is not really racism.

A conversation has commenced. Politicians, communal leaders and educators are asking “what can we do?” “Holocaust education” cry some. Whereas more, and better, teaching about the Holocaust has a part to play, we must be alert to the twin dangers inherent in its promotion as the solution. 

The first, gaining increasing currency in some “progressive” circles, is to empty the Shoah narrative of its Jewish content. The universal message of anti-racism completely eclipses the particular lesson of the evils of antisemitism. The apogee of this distortion casts Zionists, that is Jews expressing their national rights, in the role of Nazi oppressors, with all terrible irony intended.

But the other danger is in some ways more threatening. Holocaust education enforces the notion that Jews are perpetual victims. It tells how Jews died. We need to show how Jews live.

We need to proclaim to those who hate, and to those bystanders out of ignorance or cowardice, that we are proud and confident Jews, bearers of our heritage, adherents to our values, and full participants in the collective story of Australia.

Our identity is not defined by our victimhood.

This is why I was struck by the comment of the mother of one of the boys in the report.

“Essentially, everyone’s solution to this problem is to send your child to a Jewish day school. I don’t know. Do we live in a society where we really have to do that in order to be safe?”

Of course she is right. A Jewish child should be safe in any school and on any street in Australia. But if a Jewish school is seen as nothing more than a refuge or a sanctuary, then we have failed to articulate a positive vision of the benefits of a Jewish school education, just as we have failed to demonstrate to ourselves and others the value of what it means to be a Jew.

Jewish schools are so much more than a place of safety from the antisemitic bullies. A Jewish school is an environment in which a young person can learn their history, culture and religion, and then understand from where their people has come and to where it is going. A place in which excellent Jewish educators, inside and outside the classroom, can demonstrate the relevance and profundity of what it means to be Jewish today. Where a seamless integration of the “Jewish” and “general” spheres ensures that a student grows without the need to compartmentalise two worlds, but feels confident and comfortable in one holistic identity. Where the rhythms of the Jewish week and the Jewish year find life in the school timetable. Where the study of the Hebrew language and an understanding of the centrality of Israel in Jewish life today is the best antidote to the relentless pressure of anti-Israel propaganda.

Jewish schools are not lifeboats providing shelter from a storm of enmity, but ships of discovery, bringing their passengers and crew to new vistas and opportunities. 

In a similar way, the State of Israel is seen by too many Diaspora Jews as little more than a bolthole for times of danger, when in truth it is the realisation of two millennia of yearnings for independence, where the age-old dream is now lived in reality and the place where Jewish destiny is forged.

Jewish life itself is too often presented as a “fight against” – against antisemites, against Holocaust-deniers, against external threats. Important though these struggles are, we are so much more than our victimhood.

We must show ourselves and others that we have an identity that is positive, profound and proud. That will be our true victory over the bullies.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.

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