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Friday, 29 April 2016

My school days were filled with casual anti-Semitism

Susie CoenAuthor: Susie Coen
I’d largely forgotten about the anti-Semitism I experienced at school until a few weeks ago. I’d been tagged in a Facebook photo by one of my oldest friends who moved to Australia and I miss dearly. It was a picture of a small yellow bird and the caption read: “A rare sighting of the tiny little jew bird”.

“If it was any other form of racism, I wonder whether everyone would have encouraged and accepted it”
I’d been used to this sort of casual anti-Semitism on a daily basis when I was growing up. One of my friends quickly coined the nickname “Jewsie” and soon that’s what how most people referred to me. Other variations included “pocket Jew”, as I am a modest five foot, or people would make regular insightful observations such as “you’re such a tiny little Jew aren’t you.”
Sad school children

If I ever asked them to stop and pointed to the fact that what they were doing was actually a form of racism they’d say: “chill out! It’s just a joke!”
I also remember one girl saying: “I still don’t see how Jews are a race.”

The last day of school

On the last day of school, I came bounding home and proudly showed my mum my jumper. We had just finished school, and even though we would all be staying on for sixth form together, everyone had scrawled proclamations of their undying friendship in marker pen all over each other’s uniform.
She was shocked when alongside the different versions of “omg I’m gonna miss u so much”, one boy had written:
I tried to reassure my mum that it wasn’t a big deal and that it wasn’t meant in a nasty way. These were my friends, my best friends, after all, but she was still upset.
Even though it didn’t actually upset me, this treatment sadly taught me to always play down my heritage. I’d tell people: “I mean yeah I’m Jewish but I’m not Jewish. It’s only because my mum’s mum was a Jew, I mean I’m not religious or anything and I love bacon. I’m not a real Jew.”
I think the reason it then struck me when I saw that Facebook post is that I’ve become so used to life without this casual anti-Semitism.

Embracing Jewish identity

At university “Jewsie and “pocket Jew” were swapped for “tiny Susie” and “little Suse”. I even made friends with some Jewish girls who were really proud of their heritage. It was completely alien to me to meet people my age embracing and openly talking about their Jewish identity.
I’m still not as vocal as they were about being Jewish, but now if someone asks I say “yes I am” without reeling off a list of justifications.
To this day I don’t doubt that my school friends made those comments without malice. But if it was any other form of racism, I wonder whether everyone would have encouraged and accepted it like they did.
I also wonder why none of my teachers mentioned anything when I’d been wearing that jumper all day, but perhaps they just didn’t see it.

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