Karen Glaser

My girl was targeted at school... by the teachers

After her experience at a mainstream comprehensive, I'm giving my son a Jewish education


Empty classroom, gymbal shot

September 21, 2023 12:17

When my daughter was 12, a teacher asked her to debate the following motion: Is Zionism racism?

The invitation was made during a Year 8 citizenship lesson on democracy. Pupils were asked to give examples of democratic countries and when Leah offered Israel as an example, the teacher shook her head. Even at the tender age of 12, my daughter sensed this as an attack on the Jews’ nation state and, flustered, she said something back. Unmoved, her teacher took her on: “OK, let’s debate this properly,” she said.

Two years later my daughter was walking to an English lesson with her friends Mumtaz and Sara* when the words, “Viva, Viva Palestina!” rang out in the corridor. The girls looked up and to Leah’s horror and Mumtaz and Sara’s delight, they saw their maths teacher walking towards them, his thumbs cocked up in approval. What was he so pleased about? The slogan on Sara’s T-shirt: “Free Gaza.”

Earlier this month, the JC reported that the number of Jewish children attending Jewish faith schools in Britain is set to reach 40,000 by 2025. For a community that at the last census numbered 271,000, this is an astonishing figure. Even more surprising when you consider it is nearly eight times more than in the 1950s, despite the decline in Britain’s Jewish population over the same period.

According to a new report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the main reason a growing number of Jews send their kids to Jewish faith schools is to develop their sense of Jewish identity. Eight in ten parents give this as their reason. Six in ten say it is so their offspring will make friends with kids with similar values.

But only two in ten choose a Jewish education because they are worried about antisemitism, and this surprises me. When it was time to select a secondary for Leah’s younger brother, the possibility that he might encounter the antisemitism his sister had experienced was the reason I opted for a Jewish school.

But it still wasn’t an easy decision. I had to wrestle with myself. I do not have to be convinced of the arguments for local schools. They are good for communities, for stitching together the fabric of the nation.

When, in 2012, I sent Leah to our local mainstream secondary, a school where you can count the number of Jewish pupils on the fingers of one hand, it was with these thoughts in mind. But six years later, my theory had parted company with my feelings. I had, in the words of the Jewish writer Irving Kristol, been mugged by reality.

During her time at secondary school, Leah experienced antisemitism in all its variations. Religious: you killed Christ and think you’re God’s chosen people. Racial: how come you haven’t got a big nose? Economic: Jews are rich. Political: Israel is racist.

Generally, the black and white working-class kids spouted the religious and racial racism; the Muslim and middle-class pupils peddled the political prejudice; and everyone agreed that Jews were loaded.

But unpleasant as it all was, Leah never felt her classmates were trying to hurt her. Their words came from a place of ignorance rather than malice. Whenever she said, “You can’t say that, and here’s why”, they listened and mostly accepted they were simply parroting things they had heard.

With the staff, it was a different story. In my experience, teachers don’t generally like backing down, or being corrected by a child — and my child tried to do just that.

The second half of Leah’s secondary education coincided with the Corbyn years and most of the teachers at her London school openly supported the former Labour leader in the classroom and on social media. He wasn’t the school’s local MP, but right up until the last general election, when stories about Labour’s antisemitism problem were an almost daily news event, Corbyn was still being invited to talk.

But for her teachers, one of whom had the Palestinian flag as his Facebook profile picture, if you didn’t support Corbyn you were a Tory and to be a Tory was to be scum. Corbyn was the victim of a witch-hunt, of unfair media coverage, they said.

It wasn’t the easiest environment in which to be a Jewish student (who doesn’t vote Tory), but outspoken, well-read and vocal about antisemitism, Leah fought the good fight and I imagine it irked her teachers.

Is this why, I have wondered, her initial A-level predictions were good, but not quite good enough, and I had to fight hard to get them raised to A*A*A, the grades Leah actually got in the summer of 2019? Is this why the school omitted to mention my daughter’s stellar A-levels, the best arts results in her year, when it announced the grades of its top-performing students?

I shall never know for sure, but the whole experience wasn’t one I wanted to risk repeating. Which is why in two years’ time, when 40,000 Jewish children are predicted to attend Jewish schools in this country, my son will remain one of them.

*All names have been changed

September 21, 2023 12:17

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