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J-Wire covered a presentation by students at the B’nai B’rith Australia and New Zealand Triennial Convention conference highlighting what it’s like to be Jewish in a non-Jewish school.

Read in J-Wire.

“I am definitely very passionate about Jewish identity, my community and ensuring it is a safe one,” says Loven by way of introduction. “Out of my own experience of antisemitism, we decided to address the issue. Many forms of racism stem from ignorance and a place where ignorance has no place is in the education system.”

During B’nai B’rith’s Australia and New Zealand Triennial Convention conference, held recently in Melbourne, he and members of the J-Voice committee of students delivered a presentation of a report they had compiled,  Being Jewish in a non-Jewish School, on the experiences of Jewish students studying in Victorian state schools.

“Given a measurable prevalence of antisemitism and the progression into physical harm in some cases, we felt it was necessary that something be done now and not later,” he explains. The group fielded a survey aimed at Jewish students attending state schools to gauge their thoughts and experiences with regard to diversity, antisemitism and personal experiences. It covered 13 schools and involved 74 participants spread out across the Year 7 to Year 12 student body.

The findings were sobering.

Some 33% of students who participated in this survey had experienced discomfort at their school due to anti-Israel comments, Jewish stereotypes or Jewish jokes. Holocaust studies were either tokenistic or, in some cases, completely overlooked.

“During Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown, we saw the progression of antisemitism online,” says Loven. “In the brief moments that we were able to come back to school there were rockets aimed by Hamas at Israel, yet many people were bringing it up and voicing anti-Israel opinions; it was a very uncomfortable environment.”

Last year, the group was invited to give a presentation on the report to Victoria Education Minister James Merlino.

“We expected it was just going to be him,” recalls Loven,”but there was such an overwhelming response. Ministers who were not even part of it came to listen and propose ideas or express an interest in being involved. It exceeded all our expectations.”

The group was invited back to hear what the government had implemented. “It was just incredible!” recalls Loven.“They approached it with such enthusiasm; it was so inspiring to see a government do something so proactive and inclusive for the community.

Following this report, the Victorian department of Education has begun implementing Holocaust education as a mandatory and full unit in the education curriculum. To this end, they are collaborating with Yad Vashem in Israel to develop a holocaust education program for teachers to run.

“It was something that we wanted and needed for the community,” says Loven. “The fact that it was implemented in such a swift manner astonished us.”

In June, Victoria became the first Australian state or territory to ban the public display of the Nazi symbol in recognition of its role in inciting antisemitism and hate.

And more changes are afoot to combat ignorance, antipathy and discrimination. The Victorian government has pledged to give $2m to Courage to Care, a B’nai B’rith project aimed at educating school-aged students to be upstanders in their community.

As he expounds on the project’s reach and its long-term objectives, it calls to mind Margaret Mead’s immortal words: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.