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To stop anti-Semitic bullying, teach students empathy for other cultures

Rabbi Zalman Kastel
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Published: 18 October 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

THE ORDEAL OF TWO school students in Victoria has stirred up feelings of outrage and solidarity with the students and their families.

Among other things, we need a robust educational response that goes beyond telling children that “multiculturalism is good”. Rather, they need to be given the skills to reflect critically on their own assumptions and culture. I will illustrate this by reflecting on my experience in writing this article.

Last Tuesday I wrote an article that focused on the newspaper image of a Jewish schoolboy prostrating himself before a Muslim student and kissing his feet. I called the Australian National Imam’s Council to suggest it might want to issue a statement regarding Muslims and anti-Semitism.

My contacts questioned the appropriateness of focusing on the faith background of one boy and the aim of calming tensions rather than increase them.

The following day was Yom Kippur and as I engaged in introspection, I had the opportunity to ponder the way I had chosen to interpret this image.  My mind wandered to a shameful event that happened when I was the same age as the boy whose feet were kissed.

I was 11 years old, with low self-confidence, at an American summer camp. One day I was offered an opportunity to ingratiate myself with the cool kids. I was asked to lead a boy I will call “Abe”, a child at the very bottom of the social feeding chain, to a given spot where another boy, “Moishe”, would be hiding and he would jump out to give Abe a fright.

I agreed and started a conversation with Abe, who trustingly walked with me into the ambush. Moishe came screaming out of the bushes and jumped on Abe, scratching his face.

As I stood in shul, I wondered what if Abe had been an Arab, and a newspaper had a photo of me leading him into this ambush. Would it have been appropriate for them to represent me as a Jewish boy? I think not, unless my motivation was based on me being Jewish, which it was not.
I am not objecting to the Muslim identity being mentioned, but rather, reflecting critically on my choice to make his religion the focus of my article and way of thinking about this child.

My case is different to the current situation. In this case, the Muslim identity of the boy whose feet was kissed is relevant. I have been told that the ringleader of the group of anti-Semitic bullies and most of the group are not Muslim. The ringleader came up with the idea of forcing the Jewish boy to kiss the shoe of the Muslim boy (who was also part of the group) because he thought this would humiliate the Jewish student.

In addition, the Muslim parents of the offending boy were horrified by his behaviour and they joined the Jewish boy’s mother and the two boys and explained “what it meant to them as parents, as far as building bridges between Jews and Muslims in society and not creating division like that photo does".

So, I am not objecting to the Muslim identity being mentioned, but rather, reflecting critically on my choice to make his religion the focus of my article and way of thinking about this child.

My willingness to review my initial interpretation of an image or event is an illustration of one part of what is needed to defeat bigotry. We need to honestly and courageously confront the difficulties that can arise when diverse human beings interact, rather than feed kids platitudes about diversity being a source of more interesting foods.

Children and their teachers must recognise that it requires ongoing critical awareness for all of us to enjoy social cohesion, safety and prosperity in diverse settings, as my colleagues Donna Jacobs Sife and Michelle Brenner teach.

I agree with Naomi Levin’s op-ed in The Age that “government and non-government schools need to be actively implementing and promoting [anti-racism and anti-bullying] programs as a core activity”. For this to happen, teachers must be held accountable for engaging with this meaningfully.

Once teachers more robustly embrace teaching for intercultural understanding, they will engage in a holistic approach. This will include, but not be limited to, invoking cross-cultural empathy and utilising programs that involve people sharing their stories.

Such programs are offered by the Jewish, Christian, Muslim Association in Victoria, the Together For Humanity Foundation in NSW, the Jewish museums and B'nai B'rith’s Courage to Care. We all need to get more actively involved in interfaith dialogue and solidarity.

On Thursday morning, the National Imam’s Council’s spokesman, Bilal Rauf, sent me the following statement:

"Any conduct which vilifies, incites or commits hatred or violence, or harasses, another person based on their religious identity (or indeed for any other reason) is abhorrent and needs to be rejected in the strongest terms. The tragic shooting overnight outside a synagogue in Germany highlights the increasing risks and effects of such hatred and violence.

“The attack was filmed and had similarities with the far-right attack on two New Zealand mosques earlier this year. The risks of such hatred and violence are something faced by both, the Jewish and Muslim communities. I express my support for the Australian Jewish community and sincerely hope that both communities can work together to address a shared and real threat to their safety, even in our wonderful and mostly peaceful country."

Rabbi Zalman Kastel is founder of Together For Humanity, a multi-faith educational organisation that works with schools, organisations and communities

Illustration: John Kron

About the author

Rabbi Zalman Kastel

Zalman Kastel is Director of Together for Humanity Foundation, a Christian, Jewish Muslim organisation that promotes Intercultural Understanding, primarily in schools.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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