British yobs, racial slurs and why I fear for my children: As a Jewish school is attacked in France, one British mother's utterly shocking account of the anit-Semitism her children suffer
08:58 GMT, 23 March 2012
Every weekday morning I drive to a building surrounded by razor wire. It has bomb-proof windows, security guards posted next to its tall, iron gates, and sturdy fences that ring the perimeters. Access to anyone is by entry phone — or by convincing the guards you have a right to enter.
So do I work in a prison No. I have children who attend a Jewish school near our home in Manchester.
Though the security at the school may sound shockingly heavy-handed, my sons barely notice it and we parents gratefully accept it. However, every so often I ask myself: is this how we really need to protect a school in modern Britain
Horror: A child is comforted by a man after this week's shootings in France
Sadly, there is no choice. And after the horrific events in Toulouse this week, which saw the killing of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school just like my children’s, I can’t see that changing.
I was driving when the news came through on the radio and, shaking hard, I just about managed to manoeuvre the car through the morning traffic as I fought to take it in. As soon as I could, I pulled over to phone my husband and tell him what had happened.
Not only was there deep shock and profound sorrow, there was something else, too — a cold dread that fingered the spine. Put simply, I was terrified.
For the sorry truth is that schools like my children’s would not need such protection if there was a not a genuine threat in Britain, too. Don’t believe me Three of my four children attend Jewish schools (the fourth is now on a gap year), and over recent years they, along with many of their friends and classmates, have been targets for anti-Semitic abuse.
Only recently, my 13-year-old son and his friends were walking home from the local Jewish high school when a group of yobs from across the road taunted them by shouting: ‘You Jews, Zeig Heil! We hate you, Jews.’
Ask any of the pupils about this kind of incident and they will tell you — to quote my 16-year-old son — that ‘it happens all the time’.
These are not teenagers who are ultra-orthodox, so there are no overt signs of their religion, except that they are walking home from a Jewish school. They look like any other scruffy kids as they amble along with their skewed ties, untucked shirts, backpacks and pockets jammed with jaw-rotting sweets. But even that relative anonymity doesn’t protect them.
The tragedy in France has crystallised the fear of every Jewish parent in this country
The son of one friend of mine had eggs thrown at him by a group of youths as he made his way home, while another was actually set upon by a trio of mindless young idiots — though he managed to break free and run away, thankfully, with just a few bruises. Little wonder that on the afternoon of the Toulouse murders, as I went to collect my seven-year-old daughter from school, the atmosphere in the playground was febrile with what I can only describe as a collective terror.
For the tragedy in France has crystallised the fear of every Jewish parent in this country: that racial hatred takes no prisoners — even innocent ones — and can, in the worst-case scenario, lead to unimaginable tragedy.
Thank goodness that our children, buoyed by youthful optimism, seem almost to take it in their stride. Part of me admires their fortitude.
As a mother, I would fight like a lioness with anyone who threatened their safety.
But I don’t want my teenage sons yoked to my side by a prevailing fear of anti-Semitic attack. I want to raise them to hold their heads high, to be proud of their Jewish heritage, to contribute to and integrate with the wider community and, above all, to know who they are.
Unfortunately, being Jewish and going to a Jewish school puts them in the firing line for threatening and abusive behaviour.
Where I live, the situation is compounded by the fact that more anti-Semitic crime took place in Greater Manchester than London last year, despite seven times more Jews living in the capital.
There is no obvious reason for this except, perhaps, it is easier to target the tight-knit Jewish community in Manchester, which is concentrated in an area that is relatively small compared to London’s sprawl. In terms of the aggressors, there doesn’t seem to be any consistent racial or religious profile.
Mourners in Toulouse in France this week. Angela Epstein says she was terrified when she heard the news of the killings
According to the Community Security Trust (CST), which provides additional protection at schools and communal events to the Jewish community across the country, the victims include two Jewish schoolgirls who were approached by two other youngsters who held cigarette lighters up to them and threatened to ‘burn you like Hitler’.
On another occasion, a lit firework was thrown from a car at three Jewish schoolchildren as they walked home. Let me ask the non-Jewish mothers and fathers reading this: wouldn’t your blood chill if pupils at your children’s school were being threatened this way
I try to give my sons obvious advice such as never allow yourselves to be goaded into a street fight, and if someone yells abuse from a car, try to get the number plate. (My friend’s son who was covered in eggs did this, and police tracked down and charged the culprit.)
So why is Britain’s 350,000-strong Jewish community — and particularly its children — under the kind of attack that has uncomfortable echoes of 1930s Germany
'My own children — along with many classmates — are only too happy to integrate'
The simple answer could be that anyone who seems different will always be a butt for old-fashioned xenophobia, patriarchal bigotry and inherited prejudice.
Perhaps, and this is far more depressing, it’s down to a cultural hatred of Jews that has bled through the generations, creating an unapologetic loathing of anything to do with our religion.
Certainly I believe anti-Semitic attacks are influenced by events in Israel — the CST, which also monitors incidents against Jewish people and organisations — said anti-Semitic incidents spiked during last year’s conflict in Gaza.
But the vitriolic feelings that manifest themselves in this country must be fuelled by something more than politics. I simply fail to understand how a tiny democracy in the Middle East, one that is no larger than Wales and surrounded by hostile neighbours, elicits such loathing.
In the end, I’m afraid I believe that our children are a target because no one fears a Jewish reprisal. As comedian Jackie Mason once said, ‘Nobody ever crossed the street to avoid a group of Jewish accountants.’
It sounds light-hearted but it’s true. We don’t make excessive demands for the State to absorb our culture. We just want to live a peaceful coexistence.
So what of the legacy of the terrible events in Toulouse Well, security at our school could barely get any tighter. Though judging from the pale, pinched faces of parents on the school run this week, confidence in what is already a well-fortified system is understandably shaken.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t matter how hard we Jews work to feel part of a broader culture, there will always be others who won’t stop reminding our children that we’re not.
My own children — along with many classmates — are only too happy to integrate. They attend a Jewish school because my husband and I want them to get a first-class secular education as well as knowledge of their heritage and tradition.
That way, as they make the journey to adulthood, they can have a foot in the Jewish and the non-Jewish world, with no recourse to mutual exclusivity.
What a pity the yobs who yell Nazi slurs at them as they make their way to and from school will never see it that way.