Life as the only 'Jew' in school

By Chas Newkey-Burden, April 6, 2012
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I never told you the one about how a Christian/Hindu cult helped me love Israel and Judaism, did I? As a non-Jew who proudly supports Zionism and is fascinated by Judaism, particularly the mystical and Chasidic traditions, I am often asked how I came to feel this way. To me, the real question is why someone would not support Israel and admire Judaism, but of course I understand the curiosity.

The short answer - which I have blogged about and mentioned during speeches - is that I became fascinated by the Middle East after the September 11 attacks. To my surprise, having previously had a lazy, hazy perception that Israel was the villain of the conflict, I became more and more of a supporter the more I learned about the place - and the issues. So I started visiting Israel and quickly fell in love with it.

But I have never written or spoken publicly about a challenging childhood experience played a part in this process. When I was nine, I joined a new school in London. I was very excited to be leaving primary school and joining a "grown-up" establishment. What I didn't realise, until I got there, was that 99 per cent of the pupils and their families were members of a bizarre religious cult, as were all the staff.

The cult, which dominated the school, combined Victorian sternness with the less savoury elements of Christianity and Hinduism to create a cruel concoction. I was a member of the one per cent of pupils with no connection to the cult. This meant that twice a day, as my classmates meditated and chanted Sanskrit, I had to go to a dark room in the basement and sit kicking my heels with the other odd ones out.

Sometimes, yes, the whole world can be wrong

It also meant, of course, that I was pressured to join the cult. The more I resisted, the more I was targeted by the staff. It was astounding how quickly the teachers could turn a maths, English or science class into a free-for-all discussion of how I came from an "impure" family.

The staff strongly discouraged the rest of the pupils from befriending me and, at times, some of the teachers were violent towards me. At one point, I was handed a year-long detention, which meant that I couldn't leave the school until 6.30pm on weekdays and not before mid-afternoon on Saturdays.

For six years, I resisted the pressure to join the cult and then, at 16, I was finally able to leave the godforsaken place. Years later, in 2007, an inquiry found that "mistreatment" and "criminal assaults" had taken place when I was there. It is possible that one can never completely move on from such an experience - the question is how to create a positive legacy.

Which brings me to my love of Israel. I think that, as result of what I faced at school, I have developed a stronger empathy for anyone who is unfairly singled out. For instance, when Kofi Annan - then the Secretary General of the United Nations - was asked why the UN so disproportionately targets Israel, and replied: "Can the whole world be wrong?" he made my blood boil. As I knew from my schooling, sometimes, yes, the whole world can be wrong.

Recently, while dining with a Jewish family with whom I am friendly, I sensed a wider connection. I was telling them about my strange school, when the wise father of the household turned to me and said: "You were like the Jew at school - that's why you understand us."

I had never thought of it that way, as I consider the story of the Jewish experience to be as much about the inspiration of your enormous achievements and example as it is the hatred you have faced. But I can see his point - and within it is the positive legacy I sought.

Perhaps if I had not been so tested as a child I would not have subsequently stood at the Kotel, nor watched the sunset in Tel Aviv, nor heard of the wondrous Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman, whose teachings now so enrich my life.

Whatever it was that took me here, I am glad it did. After all, supporting Israel and admiring Judaism is the only sensible way to roll.

Chas Newkey-Burden is an author and radio commentator. He blogs at www.oyvagoy.com

Last updated: 11:12am, April 6 2012