Frenkel: As a Jewish student in Ottawa, I experienced antisemitism first-hand

There were death threats and physical intimidation, much of it veiled in hatred of Israel, but all of it directed at me.

Jewish parents have complained about their children being targeted in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

A recent Ottawa Citizen article explored how Jewish parents are worried about the rise of antisemitism in schools, but missed an important voice: Jewish students themselves. This is my experience, as a recent graduate from an Ottawa public high school who experienced antisemitism from classmates, teachers and the administration.

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On my first day of high school, I wore my Star of David necklace proudly. Much to my horror, a fellow student who sat near me glanced at it, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked if I would pick up a penny if he threw it at me. From then on, I hid that necklace — and part of my identity — under my shirt. Unfortunately, it was only the beginning. There were many more experiences that year, including comments about my nose, my last name, and cruel jokes about money. It surprised me just how normal anti-Jewish racist tropes have become.

By the end of high school, even close friends were posting antisemitic statements on their social media. I received death threats and physical intimidation, much of it veiled in hatred of Israel, but all of it directed at me, a young Jewish Canadian who has no influence on what happens in the Middle East. I brought the threats to the attention of the administration and received no support.

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When my sister was called a “Jewish pig,” her classmate faced no consequences. Why? Because it was too “political” for the school’s principal or the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to get involved. When I received threats, the office declined to intervene — because it involved a discussion about Israel.

Because it is cloaked as activism by anti-Israel student groups, antisemitism and attacks on Jewish students appear to be allowed in Ottawa’s schools.

When I was in Grade 12, my parents met with the school board to discuss the lack of support for Jewish students. Although the board claimed to be committed to anti-racism, the OCDSB admitted it did not in fact have the tools to address antisemitism in its schools. At the time, it did not include antisemitism as part of its diversity, inclusion and equity training. The result of this failure was that I, as a Jewish student, felt alone, isolated and afraid to leave my house or attend graduation. I avoided classmates in the grocery store.

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Antisemitism is not only a Jewish problem, it creates hostile environments and hurts these important conversations about racism, including anti-Palestinian racism. Ottawa’s schools need to foster an environment that is respectful and where Jewish students are not excluded or fear for their safety. Antisemitism goes hand in hand with anti-Zionism, and delegitimizing the State of Israel is dangerous for the Jewish community in Canada. Not stopping antisemitic harassment of students because it’s too “political” means that Jewish students, like me, will continue to be threatened and harassed in our schools.

Ronnie Frenkel is a political science student at Wilfrid Laurier University, going into her second year, who attended high school in Ottawa.

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