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Op-eds

Tackling teen antisemitism – who’s to blame?

  • Howard Feldman 2018
Most of Tuesday was consumed by United States politics, and the South African Parliamentary circus. In the US, name calling had reached crescendo, and personal and hurtful insults were traded and dismissed as standard electioneering. In South Africa, a fight almost broke out in Parliament. Guards needed to be called after Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba waved his baby finger at the Economic Freedom Fighters, crudely suggesting that their “manhood” was somewhat underwhelming. Gigaba, of course, had provided documentary evidence of his own.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Nov 08, 2018

Late on Tuesday evening, my focus shifted. I was sent a voice note by a listener. A young, happy, educated voice was heard speaking in a group of friends. The voice note was directed at a Jewish student, and made numerous references to the fact that the Jewish recipient should have been killed in the Holocaust, and should have become an ashtray. He ended with the joke, “What do you call a flying Jew?” Answer: “Smoke!” The crowd of boys laughed, and the note ended.

Needless to say, I was speechless. Floored. Gobsmacked.

My show starts at 06:00. By 07:15, Wendy Kahn, the National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, was in studio, urging caution while they gathered the information and decided how best to deal with it. By 07:40, I had spoken to Treverton School Acting Head Kean Broom, who had heard of the incident only roughly when I had.

He had called the victim to arrange for a discussion later in the day; he had spoken to the perpetrator’s family; and he had already conducted an assembly. He had spoken to Jewish organisations; and was trying find a way to deal with the fall out. His approach was to create a learning experience for his students.

But he didn’t say sorry. And listeners, for the most part, didn’t accept that. Some defended it by suggesting that he didn’t send the voice note, but for the most part, they were completely dissatisfied with what they perceived to be a lack of empathy.

They claimed that I was too soft on him.

I am somewhat conflicted. I was impressed by what he had done so far, all the more so that he was prepared to talk to a Jewish radio station about the event before having had real time to gather the information. He had acted, and that needed to be acknowledged. But I did get the feeling he was making sure to distance himself and the school from the event.

The dilemma I posed to listeners was as follows:

  • How important is punishment, which might risk turning the 15-year-old into a Jew hater forever?
  • What responsibility does the school, and of course his parents, own in all of this?

I continued to remind listeners that he is a child, and that children do stupid things. He is not Adam Catzavelos or Vicki Momberg, who are adults.

What I didn’t ask, but should have, is what responsibility do we own in this? Not in the “victim blaming” sense, as this is appalling, and there is never a justification for such a vile and hurtful communique. Rather, I wonder, what examples do we set for our children?

As adults, we wave our pinkies in Parliament to taunt someone about the size of his penis; we call everyone who disagrees with our political view a racist or a fascist; TV shows called “roasting” are the norm; and we humiliate and embarrass others on Twitter or Facebook. Why would we be shocked when a 15-year-old takes it one step further? And, how would he know that this crosses the line? I am not condoning what he did in any way, but I do wonder how surprised we should be by it.

I know little of the voice noter’s family. I don’t know if he learned this at home, or at school, or at rugby club. I know little of what the unwritten rules of the school are, and if this type of bullying and irresponsible social behaviour is tolerated.

All I know for certain is that if we open our eyes to what we accept as normal behaviour from the adults around us, we should hardly be shocked when our children do the same.

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