Opinion |

The Fear Driving British Jews to Jewish Schools

My daughter’s experience of every anti-Semitic variation at her mainstream school explains why more UK Jews than ever before send their children to Jewish schools. But I still believe turning inwards is no answer.

Karen Glaser
Karen Glaser
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A protester in England hold up a sign reading "Hitler You Were Right!"
A protester in England hold up a sign reading "Hitler You Were Right!"Credit: CST
Karen Glaser
Karen Glaser

When my daughter was four, the age that compulsory education begins in the U.K., I didn’t enroll her at a primary (elementary) school in my leafy, London neighborhood. I opted for a state-funded Orthodox Jewish one, several postcodes away, instead. 

I reasoned the long car journeys across town were an acceptable trade-off for the grounding Rebekah would receive in Jewish custom and practice, and in the Hebrew language: the Yiddishkeit that I, with my complicated Jewish upbringing, had missed out on.

On paper, an Orthodox establishment was an unlikely choice. In reality, it was full of liberals who’d never had a God-bothering moment in their lives. I felt I’d come home.  But after six years of driving for two or more hours five days a week I admitted defeat, and enrolled Rebekah in a local, mainstream primary school.

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Police officers separate pro and anti-Israel demonstrators outside Downing Street in London, September 9, 2015.Credit: Getty Images

Anxious for her to settle in quickly, I was delighted when, during her first week, she was invited to a classmate’s home. When I picked her up I discovered the child’s very English, middle-class parents were also journalists, and as we exchanged chit-chat about our industry, my eyes roamed around their book-lined living room. And then I froze. Stuck to the edge of one of the groaning shelves was a sticker that read: Boycott Apartheid Israel. 

A couple of months later I was having coffee with the mother of Rebekah’s new school friend, Ella. Conversation turned to a parent at the school who was active in hard left politics, and whose daughter, Sasha, was in our girls’ class. “I feel dreadful telling you this, Karen,” said the mother,” but some leaflets fell out of Sasha’s bag in the playground yesterday, and they said: Kill Jews. Ella picked them up really quickly so Rebekah wouldn’t see, but still.” It was November 2012, and several days into Operation Pillar of Defense. Sasha, I later learned, had been on a protest against the assault with her mum and must have picked up the radical Islamist leaflets there. 

Last month, a report published by Anglo-Jewry’s representative body, the Board of Deputies, and the British independent think-thank, Institute for Jewish Policy Research, found that two thirds of British Jewish schoolchildren now attend Jewish schools. That is six times more than in the 1920s, despite the nine percent decline in Britain’s Jewish population over the same period. 

The study does not detail why parents are opting for Jewish schools, but it’s reasonable to assume many are attracted by the good academic standards, the crippling cost of non-state funded private education in these straightened times and, for the observant, a continuity between home and school religious practice. But I know from countless conversations with Jewish friends that these weren’t the decisive factor: their fear of anti-Semitism was paramount. 

There’s no doubt that Jew-hatred is growing in the U.K., particularly in London, where around 60% of Britain’s estimated 284,000 Jews live, and where anti-Semitic incidents increased by 62% in the first six months of this year. And while there is no official data for anti-Semitism in British schools, on the basis of my experiences, I’d say that my friends’ apprehension, their defensive position, is entirely understandable.

After she left her mainstream primary, I sent Rebekah to a state school down the road even though she’d been offered places by two Jewish secondaries. She wanted to stay local, and I understand the importance of a social, as well as an academic, education: her school cuts across class lines and has a large Muslim population.

Protests against anti-Semitism outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on August 31, 2014.Credit: AFP

I knew she’d be one of a small number of Jews among the student body. But I didn’t quite reckon on her being the only Jewish child in her class, in an area of north London that is home to many Jews, and has been for generations. 

Anti-Semitism is a mutating virus, and during her time at secondary school my daughter has experienced pretty much all its variations. Religious: you killed Christ. Racial: how come you haven’t got a big nose? Economic: Jews are rich and owns loads of businesses. Political: Zionists are racists.

Generally, the black and white working-class kids spout the religious and racial anti-Semitism; Muslim and middle-class students peddle the political prejudice; and everyone appears to think Jews are loaded. 

When I relay all this to my largely secular Jewish friends they palpably shudder and ask me why on Earth I keep Rebekah at the school. My reasons are nuanced. First, she doesn’t internalize any of the rubbish she hears. On the contrary, she knowledgeably and confidently rebuffs it. Second, she’s often the first Jew her fellow pupils have knowingly met, and I think she does a wonderful job of breaking down stereotypes about the tribe. Third, her schoolmates often don’t realize their prejudices are just that.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? If we don’t get to know each other, it’s easy to misunderstand the people who live among us and, when necessary, to tackle their bigotry.  

So, while I completely understand why, when it comes to education, British Jews are falling in with a safer, separatist sense of identity, I don’t think we are ultimately doing our kids any favors. Nor British society as a whole. 

How will non-Jewish children ever positively encounter the Jewish children who live among them - and have their preconceptions challenged? And when those Jewish kids leave the cocoon of their Jewish schools, how will they know how to stand up to, recognize even, the world’s longest hatred? 

Sending our children to Jewish schools is a delaying tactic. They are not going to live the rest of their lives in an all-Jewish world. And they will certainly encounter anti-Semitism on British campuses. I believe my daughter will be far better equipped to deal with prejudice at university, and move on, than a kid who's been schooled in a Jewish bubble. That, to me, seems the crueler option.

Karen Glaser is a British freelance journalist for national newspapers and magazines.

All names have been changed to protect the subjects’ privacy.