The words of the child shocked me.
She had just taken the full force of a football, kicked by an older child from close range, in her face.
When I sought to comfort her, she said that “Bad things just happen. We black kids expect it,” and couldn’t work out why anyone cared about her welfare.
A mature 11-year-old, she had internalised that a positive or happy life was not something to which she, as an Indigenous kid, could reasonably aspire.
The encounter happened during my time volunteering in what was known as a “latch-key children’s centre.” High schoolers such as myself, and a few staff, helped with homework and ran sporting and other activities for children who would not have returned to what the community considered positive home environments.
In this inner-city suburb, a large minority were Indigenous children and, after the incident I mentioned above, I found myself often in conversation with Indigenous students about their families, lives and often sad visions for their futures.
I was morally offended that there were Australian children who were being realistic, on the whole, in viewing their lives in their own country pessimistically.
For many of them, the school they attended was a place of security and comfort.
I reflected on this when talking with other Jewish Australians about recent reports of disgusting antisemitic behaviour at educational institutions, sometimes allegedly exacerbated or instigated by those with a duty of care.
Jewish students at a variety of public and private schools have, over many years, been subjected to a range of anti-Jewish racist behaviour, which they have generally accepted as simply a consequence of being part of a small minority.
Whether it has been vile slurs with foundations in Christianity (and sometimes Islam), grubby stereotypes often relating to money, or even physical intimidation or violence directed at keeping minority members in their place, Jewish students have tolerated what never should have been tolerated, over and over again.
When I was confronted with anti-Jewish slurs or mockery directed at me personally, I tended to treat the abuse as nothing more than a sad indictment of the anti-Jewish idiot who gained some sort of kick out of attempting to bully someone who generally ignored being bullied. But when I learned of other incidents of antisemitism in my school days, I was motivated to act.
In addition to the insults and bullying by some students, then, as now, teachers could be part of the problem.
When I was at school, one teacher accused a misbehaving (non-Jewish) student of “Jewish arrogance”. While no Jewish student in that class did anything, I raised the matter with another teacher, who then took it up with colleagues and made sure that the offender received appropriate counselling and discipline.
In another incident, a history teacher told his class that “Jews control the banks”, which did not seem to terribly interest most of his class, but piqued my curiosity. After a more senior teacher I asked confirmed that, at the time, there were no Jewish people in influential positions in any major Australian bank, the offending teacher was confronted and exposed as a purveyor of a harmful anti-Jewish slander.
That said, I attended schools where there was both sympathy and understanding, by most of the staff, about antisemitism and the responsibility to confront it.
This does not mean that I cannot produce a list of observations and experiences – but from many of my recent discussions, I know I was amongst the most fortunate of Jewish students at non-Jewish schools.
The recent media coverage of anti-Jewish behaviour at Australian schools has caused concern and distress to Australians hearing about this phenomenon for the first time. The fact is, far too many Jewish students in schools in Australia, over many decades, have experienced antisemitism of one form or another.
The students and their families who are now throwing the spotlight on it deserve our thanks – and also deserve action to minimise, if not eradicate, this stain on our society.