Israeli parents of students at a non-Jewish school in Reading, England, joined together to tackle the momentous task of combating anti-Israel bias within their school community. Parents asked that the school remain anonymous in a gesture of goodwill, to allow it time to further rectify mistakes made during this ordeal. They have also not yet contacted the school’s governors for the same reason.
The bias was reflected to the parents in the form of bullying, a debate on Israeli-Palestinian statehood assigned to the students and the sources provided for students to debate with.
The ‘THB a two-party state is the only viable solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine’ student protest, planned for November 9, was called off in a turnaround decision only hours before the parents spoke to The Jerusalem Post.
The sources that had been provided for those participating included a One Democratic State Campaign article entitled ‘STOP THE GENOCIDE IN GAZA!’
The source made a number of bogus and inflammatory claims such as:
• “The Palestinian people in Gaza are undergoing a campaign of genocide by their Israeli jailers;”
• “Israeli officials declaring that “all Gazans are Hamas,” thus making even children legitimate targets, carpet bombing for days to “soften” the terrain, and then threatening to invade with an army of 360,000 soldiers – all this fits precisely the UN definition of genocide;”
• “The brutal Israeli offensive is not merely an act of sheer vengeance against Hamas, but a genocidal campaign aimed at nothing less than displacing the people of Gaza so as to perpetuate its colonization of the entirety of Palestine;”
• “Israel has opposed any attempt to reach a just, inclusive and democratic settlement between our peoples. It has only endeavored, systematically and relentlessly, to extend its regime of apartheid from the River to the Sea.”The teacher responsible for the assignment included the warning that “None [of the sources] are perfect and may have bias, so I would encourage you to also complete some wider research. There are also more negative understandings of these solutions, particularly for the One State Solution – Non-democratic, as some Israeli & Palestinian leaders would want, or ethno-nationalist (some on the far right of Israeli politics, or the Hamas organization, for example) that is to different levels exclusionary of the other side. However, there are also those who campaign for a liberal democratic ‘one party state’ – your job as the House/Opposition will be to define how you have interpreted each policy.”
Izak, the parent of twin 13-year-old boys, told the Post: “We read it [the sources] as parents and we were shocked that this is what they gave to the students.”
He also felt it was noteworthy to mention that this is the second year that the school had attempted a debate relating to Israel, as last year the students were tasked with debating whether Israel should participate in the Eurovision song contest.
The school’s position on November 6 was: “We feel as a school (particularly with sixth formers) it is important for students to have the opportunity to debate current (and historical) events. For them to be solution-focused, so that they can advocate for a safer world for all. This feeds into our school vision of the parable of the good Samaritan,” according to the deputy head’s emailed response to the parents, which was shown to the Post.
In an earlier email sent on November 3, another senior member of staff had defended the debate topic. The email sent to the parents claimed “The debate you mention is being held in a safe and structured manner, with clear boundaries set in place and a neutral stance taken by the school at all times.
“The structure around the debate has been put in place to ensure these discussions are being carefully planned for by all involved and moderated accordingly. This planning has been informed by the education program ‘Solutions not Sides’ to ensure a safe space to discuss these issues is created with sensitivity and enables students to express themselves appropriately.”
The head teacher of the school eventually made the decision to cancel the debate. However, the parents are concerned that the issue runs deeper than the debate.
“This is not over yet,” stressed Izak. “We are supposed to have a meeting with the head teacher and another person…tomorrow morning in school. I am going to address not only the debate, because the debate is not the problem. The debate is a symptom…Where is it coming from? I want answers…The picking on Israel makes me feel there is someone there, in school, that is probably pulling some strings with biased information and biased opinion. This is something I would like to get to the bottom of and resolve it. The debate, for me, just opened a door here to investigate what the hell is going on here.”
“Just to remind you, we are in a Church of England school. The majority are Christians. The Israeli families in this school are…like 5…and this is a huge school… something like 1,500 students. I want to get to the bottom of it.
“Yes, we won the first battle of the debate but this is not over for me. That’s why I will make sure that I’ll do everything I can. Maybe, all the organizations that Daphna (another parent) was talking about [Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Community Security Trust] we will have to activate them. I want to understand what the school does or doesn’t do in order to make us, as parents, safe and most importantly the kids safe.”
When asked what would make this topic appropriate for the students to explore, Izak answered that he proposed to the school that they have local experts from the Jewish and Muslim community come to speak to the students.
Izak also suggested that the time of the debate was important because the emotions stemming from the loss of 1,400 Jews were still very raw, there are still hostages and it is still happening.
Daphna also added that “holding a debate in the context of October 7 atrocities normalizes these actions because then the feel, that the school is giving to the children, is “yes, this is just another thing that happened in the conflict.”It is also necessary to provide non-inflammatory resources, she pressed.
Finally, Daphna expressed a lack of confidence in the teacher responsible for the assignment. She felt the teacher did not adequately understand the terminology or history enough to host the debate.
An unsafe learning environment for Jewish students
Izak spoke of an incident that he had learned about only last week. During one of his son’s French lessons, students had repeatedly called “Free Palestine” to him. The teacher had intervened at the time but failed to inform the parents, which Izak told the Post, left him with the feeling that the school didn’t handle the situation.
Izak’s son confirmed that the teacher had stopped the torment for the moment, but no further action was taken against the students.
On November 7, Izak was finally able to contact the school about the incident. He told the Post that he stressed “As a parent, I should know about those kinds of situations.’
Izak explained that in the previous academic year his son was bullied but, while antisemitic comments were made by the bullies, antisemitism did not seem to be the motivating factor in the abuse. Again, Izak stressed that he did not receive good communication from the school about the incidents or how they were handling it.
“Prior to October 7, I can’t say as a Jew I felt there is antisemitism around me…but it was first like it was under the ground,” Izak described. “What October 7 events… it took everything over the ground and suddenly we see it more. It is either we are very very sensitive to the topic now or it was there and we just didn’t see it and now we see or it’s really raising antisemitic events…that’s really concerning me as a parent here.”
When asked about whether the climate at the school had changed since the October 7 start of the war or if there had always been a hostile climate, Daphna described how her daughter’s best friends had been Muslim girls from mostly Arab countries. She explained that if her daughter’s friendship group was indicative of the climate, that it was very safe.
Daphna went on to explain that her daughter’s friendship group had taken a break from her due to the intense feelings on both sides. While the conversations between the young women had started as mild, the conversations progressed into accusations that resulted in strong feelings.
An Israeli parents’ guide to successful advocacy
Daphna recounted to the Post that when she initially contacted the paper, the parents “were in a space where we felt unsupported, unheard [but] since then, we saw positive developments…The message we have now about this whole story is: work together, in one voice as Jewish parents, as Israeli parents. Even if you feel you’re not heard and not seen, don’t give up because, eventually, you will identify the grown-up in the room and they will help you. This is what happened to us.”
“We were in three rounds of email communications and desperately asking them to meet us, telling them what we’re going through, the threat that we were facing. They [the teachers] kept just saying “no we got this, we have robust policies to address inclusion and safety in the school” and we felt like we were hitting a wall, we’re not getting anywhere.
“Then, once we identified the correct person to speak with, and in our case it was the school’s head teacher, we got an immediate response. I sent the email [to the head teacher] at 7 a.m. [on the 7th] and at 8:20 a.m. the debate was canceled. So, it was early in the morning. School was not even open but the head teacher, who is a very responsible and empathetic and serious person, identified the topic and she made an immediate decision, the right decision, and we felt like this was a breakthrough.
“So, our message to Israeli and Jewish parents around the world, if this is what you are experiencing as well…you see something that you are not comfortable with, you are concerned about the environment in your school…First of all, speak up!”
“Unite!” another parent added. “Speak up!”
“It is not easy to speak up,” Daphna acknowledged. “There is so much emotion surrounding this topic and there are a lot of views, information, agendas. It was a huge lift and an effort just to articulate the messages in a coherent and structured way that doesn’t sound just angry or being self-victimizing.
“So, first-of-all, come together. We sent that email that was actually draft 4 and so many people made comments; and not only the parents. Izak [another parent] included other people from the community: lawyers, PR folks, teachers. Everyone gave valuable comments, and not only comments but the support.
“Step 2 is you have to speak up. You have to identify the correct people to do that. If you are not getting the response you are looking for, escalate firstly within the school…and there are also organizations that help.”
Daphna went on to explain the importance of documenting and collecting evidence of claims to “holding institutions, organizations accountable for what they do and don’t do. When they find themselves that they have to explain their actions, it also helps.”
The parents also recommended that other parents proactively ask their kids if they are experiencing antisemitism, because kids may not recognize comments and situations as abnormal.