This morning, I will be attending the second annual Race Relations Roundtable, organised by the ACT Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner, Helen Watchirs. ACT Minister for Community Services Joy Burch will also be present. Both will hear first hand from Canberrans sharing their experiences of racism and discrimination with the hope that by working together we may create a more inclusive community.
I will be sharing the results of a report on anti-Semitism prepared for the ACT Jewish community. The desire for a report reflected a concern I shared with the 2011 Race Relations Roundtable about the experiences of discrimination and racism towards schoolchildren here in the ACT. When a teacher at the Jewish community weekend school asked her class about the past week, one child mentioned they had encountered anti-Semitism. This prompted others to share similar experiences, and these young Jewish Canberrans openly described how they had experienced persecution, hatred and discrimination, directed at them because they were Jewish.
As Associate Professor Danny Ben-Moshe's report identifies, while there is no one definition of anti-Semitism, it can be manifest in multiple ways, including: social exclusion, physical assaults, perpetuating myths, accusing Jews of evil wrongdoing, and denial of rights, including the right to self-determination in the national homeland Israel. Anti-Semitism, which can be intentional or unintentional, targets individuals because they are Jews.
Some Canberra examples reflected deep-seated stereotypes of Jews, with one child reporting: ''They threw down some money and I picked it up and they said I passed the Jew test.'' In the worst incident a child was repeatedly told the Nazis were going to come and finish the job and they later noticed swastikas drawn on the wall in their classroom. Another child reported leaving their classroom and returning to find their desk graffitied with a swastika.
Also of great concern is the insensitivity and ignorance in relation to Jewish religious and cultural needs, particularly dietary requirements. The Jewish children constantly were on the defensive explaining why they don't eat pork. For the most part, these comments were based on curiosity but the insensitivity of schools on this issue was often intimidatory in effect if not in intent.
Religious ignorance, insensitivity and intolerance also come to the fore at Christmas time when it is assumed that all people celebrate this holiday. I often explain that I don't celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukah. My intention is to then explain what Chanukah is but the moment is often followed by discomfort and the cultural temperature drops.
While church-based schools do teach other religions as part of their curriculum they can also be identified as showing religious insensitivity at best, and outright discrimination and intimidation at worst. One child described a lesson where they had been asked to write G-d's name, so he wrote Yahweh, because Jews are forbidden to write the name of G-d in full. The teacher asked why and when the pupil explained, he was told: ''Just write it anyway.''
The problem of respecting Jewish religious rites was particularly pronounced when it came to chapel attendance at the church schools. One participant complained of being forced to go to chapel; the pupil nonchalantly explained they dealt with this situation by simply mouthing the words. Another Jewish student refused to go to chapel at all - according to Jewish law it is forbidden to enter a church in prayer; they were forced to sit in the detention room while the issue was resolved, effectively being punished for observing their Jewish faith.
In a well-educated community like Canberra, with a legislative framework to protect against discrimination, we should be ensuring that our education system is required to teach and respect and affirm other religious practices and beliefs. Differences of faith should be presented as a positive attribute enhancing the rich community we are part of, rather than being the reason for bullying and discrimination.
Professor Kim Rubenstein is director of the Centre for International and Public Law at the ANU College of Law, and president of the ACT Jewish Community.
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