OPINION: Testimonies call for JFS to lead the change – or be left behind 

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OPINION: Testimonies call for JFS to lead the change – or be left behind 

Three ex-students at Europe's largest Jewish secondary school explain why they launched a letter urging it to educate pupils about systemic, ongoing racial oppression

JFS School
JFS School

Just two days ago, in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, we launched an open letter to the JFS Headteacher and Senior Leadership team. We called on JFS to change their curricula to incorporate global histories of colonialism, slavery and racism – including the UK’s role in these systems. We, and now hundreds of others call on JFS to educate about systemic, ongoing racial oppression, and ensure that JFS culture provides zero tolerance for racial discrimination at any level.

This letter is just one contribution to a much-needed and long-overdue conversation in the Jewish community around race: communal organisations, youth movements and synagogues are engaging fervently with this conversation, hosting educational events, round table discussions and strategy meetings to decide how the Jewish community can best ally with the Black Lives Matter Movement.

We welcome Headteacher Rachel Fink’s response that JFS is open to change and further development: our Jewish history and values have taught us, as students, alumni and parents, the fundamental importance of being an ally, and we call on JFS leadership to reflect this. In our experience, JFS provides a thorough education on the history of Jewish oppression and the need to fight against antisemitism. The failure to also teach about other historical oppressions not only undermines but also fails to heed the lessons of Jewish history.

Esther Craven, Jacob Middleburgh and Ella Davies Oliveck

So far, we have received over 740 signatures from current and former JFS students, teachers, and parents. We have received over a hundred testimonies from signatories, sharing their experiences not only of insufficient education around race issues, but also of multiple incidences of racism within the school which have been insufficiently dealt with. Whilst we appreciate Headteacher Rachel Fink’s response that JFS may have changed, it is clear that this change is not far reaching enough.

This may come as no surprise – racism is deeply ingrained in British society and is thus a prominent issue in many schools, profoundly affecting the experiences of black students and those from other ethnic minorities. This is something JFS, as the largest Jewish secondary school in the UK can, and must, urgently address.

Numerous testimonies received indicate that students received no education on race history or any other aspect of racist structures. A 2019 graduate stated, “We always seemed to shy away from criticising our own country. This is something that needs to change if we want to educate students on the systemic problems that stem from historical events and remain in our society today – racism being a very prevalent example.”

Other testimonies reflect the lasting impact on students of this lack of education, even after they leave JFS, pointing to the school’s potential role in tackling societal racial inequalities. A 2018 graduate stated that “it was really hard to understand adversity when it was never taught to me” and described leaving JFS with large gaps in knowledge and understanding around race.

This woeful gap in educational provision cannot be separated from the testimonies we have received from students of colour – black, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews. These are the voices we should be listening to and learning from.

One former student said in a testimony: “I have darker skin and curlier hair than what seemed okay at JFS. I found the school to be an alienating place because of the attitudes of people in both student and staff groups. I was told off by a teacher for wearing my hair out, even though whiter, straight-haired people wore their hair out. “You need to sort it out” were the words she used. Students found my hair either fascinating or hilarious, or both, and tried to touch my hair on the school bus. “Are these your pubes?” were the words I once heard from two boys giggling behind me. I was asked, many times, if I am black or mixed race. To be clear, this was not out of interest but for cheap comedy’s sake. These events all made it very clear that I was an outsider to the school community – a feeling I had not felt before, thankfully, in Jewish (or secular) circles elsewhere.”

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Many testimonies have echoed our own experience of Jewish Studies classes that JFS does not teach the diversity of Jewish experiences and tend towards a very Eurocentric and Ashkenazi reading of Judaism and Jewish history.  This experience resonates with former JFS student Leeor Ohayon’s recent article in Vashti, where he notes that for Jews to combat racism in wider society, we must first combat internal racism towards Sephardi, Mizrachi and Yemenite Jews. It is imperative that we change the way we as a Jewish community value these voices.

What is strikingly clear from the numerous testimonies we received is that you cannot address racism without teaching first about race, the history of racial oppression, and inequality and how it permeates today – both within and without the Jewish community.

A one-off response to our letter is insufficient; it will mean nothing if it is not followed through with solid actions. Rather than dismiss the letter with claims that JFS has changed, an initial first step should be to engage and listen to the concerns – not just of organisers of the letter, but of black, Sephardi, Mizrachi and other under-represented current and former students at JFS. JFS must follow up with actions, not words, to ensure an overtly anti-racist education and environment for all students.

If JFS does not act on the Jewish values that they hold so dear and meet this historical moment with the action it requires, then those very Jewish values which we are all taught – loving thy neighbour, seeking justice and rising up against all injustices – will remain mere aspirations for generations of students to come.

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