The hate we see on the street starts in British classrooms

My son was called a ‘devil worshipper’ as Palestinian flags were disseminated on school lanyards


Feelings are running high in secondary schools. Not just the Jewish ones, whose children don’t feel safe on our streets, but mainstream comprehensives in other parts of the country, such as the one my children attend. Nobody seems to know or care whether Jewish children there feel safe. Let me tell you what’s been happening in “our” school.

Ten days ago, my son had to report a group of Muslim boys who pushed him to debate whether, as a Jew, he worshipped the devil: your God has no name, your God has so many names, you get the picture.

Since then, children have distributed Palestinian flags for the school lanyards worn his year as an act of solidarity. Some of the children wearing them are so ignorant about the current situation they seriously do not know there are Israeli hostages in Gaza and, when informed of this, contest this as Zionist propaganda. The school is alert to the situation and has been very supportive, but my son isn’t sure he should report this development. He has a feeling it might make things worse.

This situation didn’t come from nowhere. There’s so much publicity about activism in universities, but nobody seems to think about schools as one of the incubators of all this. Because before you go to university, you go to school, and unlike the internet, the school system is supposed to provide mechanisms that address racism and ignorance.

As everyone recognises, if these boys think my son worships the devil, then this is both a product of their home backgrounds and a failure of education.

Last summer I wrote to this school and asked where antisemitism sits in their anti-racism strategy, because as the parent of two Jewish children, I felt it was an area that needed attention.

We immediately identified several areas where it could be integrated. Not just into equalities teaching in Year 7 and Year 12, but also into teaching around misinformation and conspiracy theories. They are always looking for examples, and the conspiracy theories about Jews and power that circulate on the internet provide plenty of relevant material.

But as a Jewish parent I wonder: why isn’t our education system dealing with this as a matter of course? And what is the Board of Deputies doing to make sure it does?

The truth is, you can never underestimate how little most people in this country know about Jews. If you look at the primary school curriculum, Judaism seems to be in there. If you know what actually happens, something else emerges.

My daughter’s class learned about Judaism the same term they learned about Christianity. I was mystified by the curriculum outline, covering as it did that well-known “Christian symbol” the Ten Commandments, and that well-known “Christian story” Noah. It transpired that what she had been studying was this: “Judaism and Christianity — the Bible (Old and New Testaments), what the Bible means to Christians.” Not much Judaism there then. It was Judaism as the old revelation, not Judaism as British Jews live it.

Too often, Chanukah and Passover piggy-back on Christmas and Easter, while no one pays attention to Yom Kippur. When I informed my children’s school they would be taking it off, I was warmly enjoined to “enjoy your day of celebration”. As an attempt to reach out, it fell flat. Brighton and Hove Green Party went one worse when it wished Jews a “Happy Yom Kippur” — and adorned the tweet with a menorah. I read the report in the JC, grimaced and moved on.

Now I wonder why nobody stopped to ask how it is that so many apparently intelligent British people know so little about Judaism’s holiest festival.

And so we’re left with the Holocaust. Which, after all, is what most British people know about Jews. Don’t get me wrong, I want every British child to learn about the Holocaust.

The most veiled candidate I ever interviewed as an Oxbridge historian was a Somali-born refugee who was also a Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador; I’m full of admiration for the way that programme reaches parts of British society that inevitably have little contact with Jews.

But Holocaust education in this country is too often inserted within a celebratory narrative about British values that breeds complacency. It’s so easy to think modern antisemitism was a continental European problem, and the Holocaust could never have happened here — as the ongoing controversy about the camps on the Channel Islands makes only too plain.

Besides, Holocaust education doesn’t seem to be working. My son was the butt of Auschwitz haircut jokes the year after his class read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That time, two Christian boys were to blame. Now Hitler and Israel are the only things anyone mentions when they realise he’s Jewish. All that teaching about the Holocaust, and it’s still possible for a bright sixth-former to write in an Oxbridge history entrance exam  that the Jews were the biggest “winners” in the Second World War because they emerged with a state of their own…

But there’s something deeper here. Teaching the Holocaust to the exclusion of other kinds of Jewish history feeds the perception of Jews as a “European minority” (to quote my son’s primary school teacher). Academics may study the Holocaust in North Africa and the umbilical connection between the Nazis, the Mufti of Jerusalem and the Muslim Brotherhood, but not much of that makes its way into our school curriculum.

Speaking to a historian of post-war Germany about recent events in Berlin, I was struck by his insight that few things were more “white” than what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the Nazi past). He saw this as a failure of integration; I think it’s also a failure of imagination. Of course, the Holocaust seems less relevant to the children and grandchildren of post-war immigrants to Europe, processing their own memories of imperialism, structural racism and colonial atrocities. Stressing the Holocaust origins of the state of Israel rather than the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands that followed just plays into the settler-colonialism narrative.

I still remember interviewing a misguided sixth-former who maintained there was little to differentiate Hitler from Churchill since both were racist imperialists: it sickened me, but we need to understand that we’re teaching the Holocaust to a new generation, in an entirely different political context. Hence the tendency to teach the Holocaust “and other genocides”. Spending £138 million on a Holocaust Memorial in Westminster preaching the same tired old messages will only make matters worse. It is time our community gave proper thought to these challenges.

But I want to end on a note of optimism because schools are also a place of hope. Two of the people most supportive of my son are his friends with Palestinian heritage, who understand the situation is much more complicated than most people appreciate. My son really likes these boys, but worries group dynamics will impede their friendship. Meanwhile, my daughter reports that when she posted about the 1,350 per cent rise in antisemitic incidents this month, she received only two replies: both from Muslim girls, who expressed solidarity and empathy (while recognising they approached the war from a different perspective). These are the kind of relationships we need to foster. And that too is part of what it means to send your child to a “mainstream” school.

The author, an eminent Jewish historian, wanted to remain anonymous for the sake of their children.

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