My first encounter with antisemitism took place before I could even pronounce the word.
Such, sadly, is the reality for members of many religious and cultural groups who are exposed to hate-filled insults and derogatory slogans from an early age, likely before they could comprehend what systemic racism even is.
Of course, education and awareness are typically the most effective responses when confronted with such hatred, but for most six-year-olds, “speak up” and “we must educate others” aren’t really part of their vocabulary.
While the playground seems to be the space with the biggest lack of instructor supervision, my first brush with antisemitic hatred was actually not on the slide, but on the carpet of a first-grade classroom.
There I was, relishing in this supposed safe haven for students as our teacher read from a storybook, when one of my peers stood up, grabbing everyone’s attention. The student slowly linked his hands, made a gun with his fingers, and pulled the trigger. “Psh psh, I will kill all the Jews!” he yelled.
A child’s youth and sense of safety murdered.
As an innocent and naive young girl, I felt waves of overwhelming emotion ranging from shock to fear. I didn’t really have much of a response to what the student said, as tears flew down my cheeks faster than the bullet he metaphorically shot me with.
Our teacher, however, did have a response: please sit alone in the corner for 20 minutes. That was it. That was the repercussion to promoting the genocide of my people, from the mouth of our educator and superior.
I figured that the follow-up, at least, would be more suitable: a phone call with his parents, a discussion with my family, a class talk on the importance of respect and the inappropriateness of his comments.
But none of that came. I got the dark buzzing of radio silence. Lost in a sea of suddenly unfamiliar faces.
That incident stuck with me during my formative years, and I thought about it a great deal. I realized that the student, because he was only a child, probably didn’t know any better and maybe overheard his parents saying something in that vein. I would have believed that it was an “isolated incident” if it had happened only once. But it didn’t. And, as my family was one of the only Jewish families at the school, each time a similar incident took place it directly affected me, even if I wasn’t the intended target.
In a bid to quell the stereotypes and misinformed views my peers seemed to have about Jewish people, I took the liberty, each and every year, of personally dispelling the stereotypes. During Passover, I brought in matzah (chocolate-covered of course). Apples and honey to celebrate the new year. Dreidels and coins for Chanukah.
Unfortunately, these efforts only resulted in my friends wanting and anticipating Jewish food. It did not seem to garner support or sympathy for the deep-seeded hatred that I had been fighting for most of my life.
I would encounter the same obscene antisemitic sentiment as I grew older, in second grade, and then a few years later, and a few years after that. Each time, the words stung equally. Eventually, it all just became part of my daily routine.
The Charter of Canadian Rights and Freedoms says that we all have a right to free speech. Canadians, of course, have the right to their own beliefs. But the Charter also says we have a right to be protected from hate speech. As a young student growing up in the Canadian education system, however, I and other members of visible identity groups did not feel protected. My right to feel safe as a Jewish person was certainly not protected.
Name-calling on the playground does not call for the Criminal Code. But it does require further investigation. If a student firing a fake gun making antisemitic comments in the first grade is not a clear sign of a bigger sort of problem, what is? Where else could a child learn and absorb these beliefs besides his home?
Are all children young and foolish, or can they be taught to be better? After all, when we do not immediately correct these behaviours, the beliefs do not die out. Au contraire, they manifest and grow until one day, it’s not just hateful words; it’s vandalizing Jewish gravestones and synagogues, physical assault, and other forms of discrimination. It’s only then that our society asks how and why this happened. Education, however, must be introduced way before that and before such views can be formulated.
Looking back at myself in the fourth grade, as my peers mocked and ridiculed me, I feel that had they been educated about other cultural and religious identity groups, they would have been able to understand more about where I came from as a Jewish person and less privy to ostracizing me on account of my religion.
Even my parents, rather than asking the school to launch initiatives to counter racism and antisemitism, felt that nothing could ever change, that such prejudice was the “norm,” and that fighting it was useless. Finally, they sent me to another school so that I would no longer be victimized.
But that was never the case.
The antisemitism did not stop, but I did learn to hold my head up high and be a stronger person. And today, I am. I started off as a child-victim of antisemitism, and today I research and fight against the very racism I encountered all those years ago as a summer associate with B’nai Brith Canada.
Working at B’nai Brith, I can see clearer than ever that, despite the endless reports of hate, racism and antisemitism, the world is not all bad, and there are good people out there, fighting on behalf of the little guy and working to make the world a place that’s free of discrimination and prejudice.
The promoters of antisemitism don’t take a sick day, and we most likely will always encounter those who hate us because they don’t understand our culture, heritage, and history. But we can never let that bring us down. It is their hate that must motivate us to work harder, be better people and, to quote Mahatma Gandhi, be the change that we want to see in the world.
Amanda Attar is a summer associate with B'nai Brith Canada, focusing on researching Jewish refugees from the Middle East.