Lessons in hatred and abuse

By Francesca Coleman, September 11, 2012
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As a trainee teacher in an inner-London school in the last two years, I dealt with countless remarks about my religion, ranging from the perplexing to the deeply offensive. After his students drew swastikas all over his classroom, my supervisor said simply: "It's not our job to project our own moral compass on to the students." Had I been any other ethnicity experiencing something similar there would doubtless have been instant outrage and punishment. Sadly, by this point I was used to this kind of reaction.

It began when, mystifyingly, a colleague told students about my religion, and the reasons for my so-called "persistent" absences (for the chagim). Later, other colleagues openly discussed my beliefs with students, without my consent or knowledge. Some were interested, but other pupils subjected me to inappropriate and insulting questions, chants and disruptions. Needless to say, had I wanted to share my private religious beliefs, I would only have done so on my own terms.

I found myself the constant prey of a group of roaming lower schoolers who would verbally abuse me everywhere and anywhere - including in my classroom - with screams of "Hitler! Hitler!" Amazingly, each time I reported an incident, it was ignored. Knowing there would be no consequences, no discipline imposed on them, only encouraged the group. Later, someone scratched "Kill Jews" on to a computer in my classroom. The school got rid of the evidence only after I involved the police.

I could detect no racism towards the other, ethnically diverse staff members. Minor incidents of racist name-calling between students were always swiftly punished. Why were the endless attacks on me ignored?

Someone scratched 'kill Jews' on a computer

To my mind, the reason was the undisguised and relentless antisemitism of a number of staff members. Some colleagues concocted tenuous issues relating to my beliefs, others were deliberately and inexplicably provocative, calling me "Christ-killer" and other names.

I did my best to inform the school about festivals and early Fridays in advance, yet the school managed to ignore this. After three weeks of leaving early on a Friday, I was summoned to the head's second-in-command. He declared, in a patronising tone, that I had already had a generous amount of time off (Yom Tov), and then launched into highly offensive questioning and ludicrous and irrelevant humiliation.

The conversation veered from my having to explain the scientific basis of Shabbat to justifying the difference between religious Islamic and Jewish holidays. The meeting concluded thus: "Some of my best friends are Jewish, and they never have any of these time-off issues."

I later wrote a polite but factual letter of complaint, detailing the "conversation", and waited six weeks for a response from the headmistress. What I got was a defensive missive that attacked me while justifying everything that had been said.

The abuse from above did not stop there. On one occasion, a member of the senior management publicly compared my appearance to various (male) Jewish celebrities, all the while remarking how "Jewwy" I looked.

The same person later refused to offer any condemnation or support when I was the subject of antisemitic abuse from pupils in his year group. Another colleague, responsible for "Ethnic Minority Achievement', refused to retract the comment that, should I fail to comply with the national teachers' strikes, I would be "personally responsible for bringing on another Holocaust".

Not that my pupils would have known what a Holocaust was. The school never taught them about arguably the most significant event of the last century. I wonder, how can people respect others if they have no understanding of what baseless and accepted prejudice leads to?

While it has been traumatic, my experience is not the norm at all state schools. But on the off-chance that any other Jewish teacher should have to deal with anything similar, it needs to be addressed. By allowing this abuse, schools are not only allowing the next generation of antisemites to grow, but are actively breeding them.

Francesca Coleman is a pseudonym

    Last updated: 12:45pm, September 11 2012