Antisemitism at school made me question my faith as a child

Growing up, I’d been the anomaly in a predominantly Christian school. 

Although I knew that my Jewish heritage wasn’t typical amongst my peers, this awareness had little effect on my sense of self during my early primary school years.

Until, out of nowhere, when I was around 10, antisemitic slurs started to get tossed around the school playground.

‘Jew’ was adopted into the vocabulary as a dirty word, which the boys would hurl at each other as an insult, sniggering.

Cruel stereotypes and racist comments about the Jewish faith were vocalised with such ease and nonchalance that they could have been mistaken for nursery rhymes.

A young, socially conscious girl, I didn’t know how to react; with no strength in numbers, I was alone in my meagre attempts to confront these contemptuous comments.

Though my peers all knew I was Jewish, these stereotypes were seen to be so mainstream that nobody thought twice before sharing them. As we migrated into secondary school, these attitudes merely matured and solidified, uttered under hushed voices and written on notes passed from desk to desk.

My religion had previously felt like a fun, quirky element of who I was, but by no means defined me; but from 10 onwards, it became something I both denied and resented. Something that I feared I would be alienated for. 

I knew that what I was hearing was wrong, but I didn’t know how to stop it so, instead, I became passive. I built up an internal barrier between myself and my heritage, numbing myself to the hurt and discomfort that these comments inflicted.

For years to come, I would internalise the antisemitism that festered amongst my school mates. I felt that if I wanted to avoid social estrangement, I would have to put distance between myself, and that element of who I was.

It’s taken until this year for this to change.

This year has made it painstakingly evident it that antisemitism still simmers deep within the fabric of our society

In July, Grime artist Wiley posted a stream of hate-filled tweets, writing that Jewish people should ‘hold some corn’ – which is slang for ‘be shot’ – adding ‘Jewish community you deserve it’.

Twitter’s reaction to these messages of patent prejudice and antisemitism was alarming. Though Wiley eventually received a permanent ban, the rapper was initially only suspended from the site for a week.

It prompted the question of why one of the most influential, and powerful social-media platforms was effectively ignoring antisemitism?

To me, it implied an ignorance and an unwillingness to see antisemitism as the serious issue that it is, or deal with it in the way you would any act of such grievous discrimination.

The Labour Party also hit the headlines with stories of antisemitic behaviour. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as head of the party in 2015 brought with it an influx of new members who were vocal critics of Israel.

With this new recruitment came a resurfacing of antisemitic tropes, propagated by those Labour members on social media and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Corbyn failed to react to the issue seriously nor took appropriate action to eliminate this discrimination from the party.

Seeing incidents of such overt antisemitism coming to light across British culture, and often being left unaddressed, means many Jewish families like mine have been left feeling incredibly anxious about their future safety, fearful that the sense of security we had felt in the UK had in fact been false.

With it, memories of my youth were brought back to the fore.

Having been educated from a young age about World War II, I was aware of the monstrosities that people of the Jewish faith were victim to only two generations ago. But it always felt like this part of history was something I would never have to endure myself.

My parents have never insisted that I follow the Jewish faith. I grew up in a household where Friday night Shabbats were frequent, but more as a symbol of family and tradition than religion itself, and matters of God and Judaism were scarcely mentioned in our home.

My following of traditions has always been somewhat lax – scoffing rashers of bacon and cocktail sausages at friends’ houses with zero regret.

And when I spoke about my distaste for religion during turbulent teenage years, my parents would listen with empathy. They understood why I was struggling with this aspect of my identity, but also believed that Judaism’s morals and values could be a positive guide to help us lead our lives – that we should be proud of our heritage and relish the community facilitated by the Synagogue.

Today, I don’t associate with a particular religion. I pick and choose my philosophies and beliefs – open to all ideas and to figuring out which ones settle. So it’s strange, therefore, that it’s taken me so long to get over my hump with my Jewish faith.

Prompted by recent events of antisemitism in our headlines, I realise that it is a crime to be so neglectful of my identity after my grandparents and ancestors fought so hard to survive because of it. I am in awe of their resilience and pride and feel guilty for not being able to replicate those qualities within myself.

The only exception is during my frequent trips to Tel Aviv, Israel. There, I seem able to speak about being Jewish without stumbling over my words in an attempt to suppress and self-filter. Perhaps it’s comfort in familiarity or the knowledge that I won’t trigger raised eyebrows or assumptions in the same way I’ve become so accustomed to in the UK.

According to the Community Security Trust, an organisation which monitors antisemitism and provides protection to Jewish communities, last year saw a record number of antisemitic attacks in the UK for the fourth year in a row.

These attacks on innocent, well-meaning communities like the one I grew up in, are a clear indicator that this stain on our society still persists, despite 75 years of distance from the Holocaust.

This year has made it painstakingly evident it that antisemitism still simmers deep within the fabric of our society – and it’s not something I can ignore any longer.

With the promise of a new year ahead, I’ve come to understand that I need to speak about my Jewish heritage with pride and confidence, if I am to expect the attitudes around me to change. I owe it to my family – my ancestors without whom I wouldn’t be alive – to help cultivate the respect and acceptance that Judaism is so long overdue. 

I hope that, in the near future, children moving through the school system won’t have to negate aspects of their identity in order to feel accepted, like I did. 

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