Ministers meet with victims’ families

Ministers meet with victims’ families

The families of two Jewish students who were victims of antisemitic bullying at Melbourne state schools met with a number of MPs this week.

James Merlino speaking in the Victorian Parliament.
Photo: AAP Image/Wayne Taylor
James Merlino speaking in the Victorian Parliament. Photo: AAP Image/Wayne Taylor

FOLLOWING exclusive reports by The AJN last week revealing two cases of antisemitic bullying in state schools, the families of the victims met on Monday with Victorian education minister James Merlino in addition to meeting federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and federal Minister for Education Dan Tehan.

They were accompanied by Anti-Defamation Commission chairman Dvir Abramovich. 

The incidents exposed by The AJN which subsequently made international headlines involved a five-year-old Jewish student at Hawthorn West Primary School who was allegedly subjected to four months of antisemitic taunts resulting in him wetting himself in class, while a 12-year-old student at Cheltenham Secondary College was bullied into kissing the feet of a Muslim child in a park and was later physically assaulted.

Cheltenham Secondary College. Photo: Peter Haskin

Labelling both cases as “disgraceful”, state member for Caulfield David Southwick implored Merlino to urgently intervene to ensure a full independent investigation was conducted. 

He also asked what further measures would be introduced to ensure the safety of children from different religious and ethnic backgrounds in Victorian state schools.

By Friday, Merlino had called for an “immediate review” and, further to his meeting with the families on Monday, he told The AJN, “I was deeply moved by their stories, and by the impact this appalling bullying has had on their sons.

“I reiterated to the parents that antisemitism is abhorrent and has no place in our schools or the Victorian community. Every child has the right to feel safe and happy when they are at school.

“I have already met with the Anti-Defamation Commission and I am soon meeting with leaders of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and Zionist Federation of Australia to discuss these incidents, and what more can and should be done to tackle antisemitism in our schools.”

Abramovich commented, “While we welcome the investigation by the Education Department into the horrifying incidents reported about recently, we believe that more can and must be done.”

He called for a wide-ranging independent inquiry into antisemitism at Victorian schools.

“This external inquiry – which we hope will hold hearings that will enable other victims to share their individual stories of vilification and harassment, and which will consult with relevant stakeholders – should come up with a set of recommendations to tackle this menace and guide us in building a safer environment for Jewish pupils,” Abramovich said. 

The reports of the incidents have drawn the “deep concern” of communal organisations, nationally and abroad, as well as senior politicians.

Speaking to reporters last week, Frydenberg, in whose electorate of Kooyong Hawthorn West Primary School is located, labelled the incidents “completely unacceptable in our civilised society” and called for better Holocaust education.

“Everyone should know that story, it should be in our curriculum, it should be taught so we cannot repeat any of these mistakes of the past,” he said.

Director of the Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC) Jayne Josem said, “The incidents described are the antithesis of our mission and the core values we strive to instil in visitors every day.”

Her sentiments were echoed by JHC director of education Lisa Philips.

“Holocaust education in isolation is not a panacea to prevent racism and prejudice, nonetheless it contains vital lessons to build the foundations of a more accepting and inclusive society.”

The United Jewish Education Board (UJEB) expressed their sympathy and understanding to the children and families involved, extending an offer of support.

“UJEB’s mission is to build a strong and meaningful Jewish future, by providing quality Jewish educational experiences to students in non-Jewish schools. 

“Although it is not a guarantee against bullying, schools that include UJEB usually celebrate cultural diversity,” stated UJEB said president Gabi Crafti and executive principal Itzik Sztokman. 

The incidents have also raised the ire of those beyond the community, with media personality John Michael Howson penning an enraged letter to the principal of Cheltenham Secondary College.

“Apparently, you have students at your college who act like members of the Hitler Youth,” he charged. 

“It makes me sick to think this behaviour can happen in a secondary school and you did nothing ‘because it was outside the school grounds’.”

Cheltenham Secondary College principal Karl Russell addressed parents in a letter on Friday in response to the incidents. 

“As a school, when we were informed of what had allegedly taken place outside of school, away from the school grounds, involving a young person who was not a student from our school, we thoroughly enquired into the incident, after which appropriate action was taken,” he wrote.

The Australian National Imams Council, meanwhile, said the incident was “deeply regrettable”.

“We support greater awareness among school leadership about the nature of vilification to build bridges of understanding and respect amongst all faiths and communities,” the council said in a statement.

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