The young children facing anti-Semitic abuse at school – while their teachers remain silent

distressed girl sat on floor by school lockers
distressed girl sat on floor by school lockers

“It started with a fellow pupil saying ‘Heil Hitler’ to my son – in the classroom, the school corridor and the playground.” Sarah’s* teenage child didn’t want to go to school the day after this happened. “He was very upset,” she says. “He was also worried about reporting it and being seen as a snitch. There are incidents all the time and it’s not a nice environment for him.”

Sarah’s son attends a state secondary school in Surrey. As a Jewish pupil, he had experienced one incident of anti-Semitism there before Oct 7 last year. But since Hamas’s terror attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza, the British schoolboy has found himself at the sharp end of an escalation in anti-Semitic abuse from his peers, some of whom have taken to incorporating the word “Jew” into his name.

One child targeted him on Snapchat, telling him “your Jewish a--- must be stopped.”

Sarah’s husband reported this incident to the police, who took it seriously at first but, more than a month later, have yet to contact the alleged culprit.

“That incident was really worrying for us,” says Sarah. “I’m now scared to speak to my son in Hebrew [in public]. You take off your symbols and change your language to try [and hide]. I feel like my children are a target and that’s very scary. It shouldn’t happen to children, no matter what background they’re from.”

Her son is not the only one to be targeted at the school. Sarah’s friend’s Jewish son in Year 11 at the same secondary was approached by another boy brandishing a can of deodorant and saying to him, “Gas the Jews”.

“There’s been a big increase in incidents since October 7,” says Sarah.

The anti-Semitism experienced by Jewish students on British university campuses since the war started has been well-documented. But according to Jewish parents, even very young children are hearing and seeing hostility from others their age.

Less than a month after the Hamas attack, a swastika and the words “Kill Jews” were found daubed in the lavatories at Channing, a private girls’ school in north London. The school warned pupils that anti-Semitism would not be tolerated.

The Community Security Trust recorded 325 incidents of anti-Semitism in British schools in 2023 – an increase of 232 per cent on the year before. The majority – 70 per cent – occurred after Oct 7. In most of the cases, abusive behaviour was involved, but 32 incidents of assault and 10 of damage to or desecration of property were recorded, too.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the picture has been similar so far this year, at both state and private schools in Britain.

One child psychotherapist who works across numerous London schools believes anti-Semitism is now systemic and needs to be tackled as such in schools. “And not just by teaching ‘British values’,” she says. “Because it’s not being addressed.”

One of her child clients has received so much anti-Semitic abuse that she is now moving schools. Another child was told by a schoolmate: “I don’t play with Jews.”

The psychotherapist’s own children haven’t been immune either. She and her family, who are British, were living in Israel until the war started and she moved them back to North London “to protect them”. But her oldest daughter, who is in Year Five at a state primary school, has been targeted by other children because of having lived in Israel.

“She was told she wouldn’t be played with because she’s from Israel,” says her mother. “At home we’ve been doing a lot of work on how we’re not responsible for a country. If we saw an American [while Donald Trump was in the White House], we wouldn’t attack them for having Trump as the president. I talked to my daughter about how I went on marches in Israel because we want things to change, and how we want peace and I don’t agree with a lot of what is happening. But she shouldn’t have to feel responsible. She doesn’t understand half of what’s going on anyway. She’s been really upset.”

The psychotherapist believes the children behind the abuse are influenced both by social media and in some cases by what they hear at home.

Another Jewish mother – who, like the others, doesn’t want to be named for fear of making things worse – says her children have repeatedly been the victims of anti-Semitic bullying at their high school. When one of them offered some cash to a schoolmate who was short of change one day, they were told: “I don’t want your dirty Jewish money”.

On another occasion, one pupil opened the gas taps during a science lesson and asked the woman’s child “if they were having flashbacks”.

They’ve seen their peers doing Nazi salutes, while swastikas have appeared on their desks.

Chana Hughes, a London-based family therapist who often sees young people and their parents from the Jewish community, warns that for many of the children, “their stomachs start to turn when Monday mornings roll around.”

She says: “A 14-year-old girl sat in my office the other week and looked at her hands. She told me about how a boy in her class had scratched a Swastika into the back of her chair and then denied it. ‘In my class, it’s cool to be into Hitler,’ she told me.”

But children and their parents alike are often reluctant to report incidents in schools, she says.

“The children affected don’t want anyone to know for fear of the repercussions. Parents are also keen not to make a fuss. They want to keep a good relationship with their children’s school, don’t want to be blamed for widening rifts between communities, and are intimidated too.”

“Many staff at schools are either complicit or silent,” says Hughes. “I’ve been told that some staff have worn keffiyehs  [Palestinian scarves] or badges with ‘from the river to the sea.’ Often they have been asked to remove the badges, but the statements have already been made.”

She’s aware of many well-intentioned teachers who have been concerned about the Jewish children’s wellbeing. “But they are also keen to keep all the parents happy and maintain the status quo in the school community,” she says.

“Often, staff themselves are confused about their responses and have little direction from the top.”

“When even primary school children are made to feel distressed about their Jewish identity, it’s yet another worrying sign that the roots of anti-Semitism are growing deep,” she says. “We need to stop it now before it becomes the legacy of the next generation.”

*Name has been changed