Call for redress for Victorian victims for racial vilification

June 25, 2020 by Henry Benjamin
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The Legal And Social Issues Committee Of The Legislative Assembly Of Victoria has heard statements from The Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the mother of a five-yr-old child, a victim of racial bullying at a Melbourne public school.

Peter Wertheim

The Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protectionsinquiry had previously heard much about the deficiencies in the way the civil prohibitions and criminal sanctions are framed in the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.

Peter Wertheim, the co-CEO of the ECAJ outlined three propositions already been put to this Inquiry by others.

Firstly, that the civil prohibitions should focus on the effect of vilification on its targets – the victims – rather than on its effect on third parties, by requiring proof of incitement, as the act presently does. The provisions of Part IIA of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975 focus directly on the harms done to the targets of racism.

Secondly, that the protected attributes should be broadened so as to protect other vulnerable groups. I agree with those who have suggested that the protected attributes be the same as those in section 93Z of the NSW Crimes – race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex or HIV/AIDS status

Thirdly, that the criminal sanctions in the Act should be completely replaced with provisions modelled on the provisions of Chapter XI of the Western Australian Criminal Code.

Wertheim said that David Knoll from the Union of Progressive Judaism took the Inquiry through these provisions in detail yesterday and he endorses his comments.

He turned his attention to the proscribing the public display of certain symbols as Nazi symbols. He said: ” Given that such displays have reportedly occurred more frequently in Victoria over the last few years, we would support the introduction of a separate offence along those lines in addition to, but not as a substitute for, offences based on the Western Australian model.

Wertheim said: “The law can only be effective in counteracting racism and other forms of abuse if it is allied to other arms of government policy, including education policy. It seems that generic education against racism will not address this problem, because many younger people fail to see antisemitism as a form of racism.  They see Jews as part of the privileged, white elite who are immune from racism, a misperception which provides a disturbing insight into the appalling ignorance of history of many younger people.

What is needed is a school curriculum not only for history but across the disciplines, which inculcates critical thinking and educates against prejudice generally and antisemitism in particular.  This should include, but go well beyond, education about the Holocaust.  There is a need to address the religious, racial and political sources of anti-Jewish hatred directly.

The law is of course critically important as a tool against racism, but the law cannot do its job unless it is backed by a whole-of-government commitment.”

He reminded the Inquiry of the statements previously made by Professor Suzanne Rutland has collaborated with Professor Zehavia Gross in research and writing about the prevalence of antisemitism in Australian schools, and what can be done to educate against antisemitism.  He added: “It seems that generic education against racism will not address this problem, because many younger people fail to see antisemitism as a form of racism.”

Wertheim sees the current National Redress Scheme for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse as a template. He told the committee: “It would provide a just, speedy and inexpensive mechanism for victims of racial or other abuse in an institutional context. The institution, not the government, would pay any compensation awarded, and also an administration fee to cover the costs of operating the scheme.  There would be a low evidentiary thresh-hold to establish eligibility for compensation, and the amounts awarded would be modest and capped. It would offer victims counselling, and a restorative process that would carry no financial cost or legal liability, but would make it possible for victims to receive an acknowledgement of the wrong done to them by the institution, and an apology. Often, the apology means far more to the victim than any financial compensation.”

Mentioning the bullying of a 12-yr-old Jewish student at Cheltenham Secondary College, Wertheim added: “The bullying culminated in a vicious physical assault of her son by the ringleader, who screamed the words “You cooked-up Jew” at her son during the assault.  Even though the mother made complaints to the school principal over several months beforehand, and warned the principal of her fears that an assault was imminent, the school did nothing to prevent the assault.  At times it seemed to treat her son as if he were as culpable as his tormentors. 

There has still been no apology, public or private, by the school or the Department of Education and Training for their manifest failure to perform what must surely have been their most elementary duty – to keep her son safe at school, despite all the express warnings beforehand.  There has been no offer of compensation for the medical and additional educational costs Maxine has incurred or the trauma inflicted on her son.  Another gang member who threatened Maxine and her son when the incident was reported in the media was charged with multiple offences by the police.  All of the charges were dismissed last Friday.  The perpetrators have essentially escaped scot-free.”

The mother of a seven-yr-old Jewish boy told the committee her son “endured racial and religious vilification while under the care of a Victorian public school”.  At that time, her son was only five.

She said, “It relates to their failure to effectively provide any kind of protection.” She described the administration as being an”adversarial and closed system”.

She agreed with Peter Wertheim’s proposition that a national redress scheme as being necessary adding “our son suffered tremendously as a result of the systematic failure on the part of the school he attended. I trusted the school with his care.”

The mother continued: “When my son told me I should not love him because his a worthless Jewish rodent you will understand I was without words.” She explained that there was another boy in his class who did like her son and he had an older brother son at the same school. “They used awful language, insults and intimidation after discovering he was Jewish”, she added.

The committee heard the bullies would follow her son into the bathrooms and “comment on his genitalia”.

Having gone through the correct procedures she learned that the sexual abuse was “completely ignored.”

The committee learned that the principal of the Hawthorn West Primary School interviewed her son without the parents’ attendance. The school and the Education Department failed him and he was young and vulnerable.

The school to her knowledge has never apologised for her son’s treatment.

She told the committee: “There has to be a concerted effort to eradicate discrimination of any kind.”

Committee member David Southwick MP asked the mother about the outcome of meetings with the Education Department and the Minister of Education James Merlino.

She replied that the report created from the review of the incident was never released to her and her husband. She said: “We were allowed to read it in a redacted form with two people standing with us.”

She said that there were processes in place and believes the Department followed them. The parents had no choice but to remove their son from Hawthorn West Primary and enrol him at a Jewish day school for his safety.

Peter Wertheim explained the difference between harassment and incitement highlighting the former is directed to a third party but circumstances change in law wherever minors are involved

David Southwick stressed the point that in the two cases, the one at Cheltenham and the other at West Hawthorn, no apologies had been made and asked Peter Wertheim if a redress scheme would deal such a circumstance.

Peter Wertheim responded: “I’ve seen similar situations in NSW and I’ve seen early intervention by the community, the parents and the government to ensure the delays and the kind of systemic failures described here do not occur.”

The Chair of the committee Natalie Suleyman reminded the members that the Victorian Government had announced earlier this year that all government secondary schools would teach all students in Years 9 and 10 the history of the Holocaust and will tackle racism and antisemitism in this context. She asked Peter Wertheim of his opinion of the Victorian Jewish community working with the state government in developing the curriculum.

The co-CEO of the ECAJ responded: “I have nothing praise for these types of programs. There has been a national curriculum since I think 2014 to teach Holocaust studies in Year 10 and it is up to each individual state how to implement it.”

He said there is a tendency for younger people to regard it as a remote event from the distant past which does not relate to them and it remains an issue.

He added: “By the kids get to Year 10, they are pretty much formed in their character and their opinions. It might be too late.” He said education about differences between races should be started much earlier in their lives. The Holocaust may not be appropriate for younger children. There should be education about difference and prejudice training for the young age groups”

Peter Wertheim stated that “Years 7 and 8 seem to be the tentative years for boys. It seems to be the age when racism is expressed more forthrightly and when they are conscious of those differences. It needs to not be anti-racism it also to be specifically antisemitism.” He added “There are far too many young people who see Jews as a part of a privileged white elite who are immune to racism. They don’t know their history. They don’t know the reality.”

The Inquiry will present its report to the Victorian Government at date yet to be decided.

 

 

Comments

2 Responses to “Call for redress for Victorian victims for racial vilification”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    These are such important points that Peter Wertheim makes. Antisemitism within the category of racism becomes lost, disregarded and ignored for all the reasons Peter speaks of. There’s the additional difficulty to be addressed of stereotypes and caricatures of Jews being the norm in the minds of so many in societies throughout the world, handed down from generation to generation and thoughtlessly utilised. Such is the case in these horrific examples of bullying at the Victorian schools mentioned. The parents of the children have been treated with the utmost disrespect and the children have been badly neglected. It’s a shocking state of affairs in this the twenty-first century in an Australian city.

    Looking to teach the Holocaust to senior secondary school students as a means to address antisemitism is not enough by itself; antisemitism needs to be discussed and explored very specifically much earlier.

    • Lynne Newington says:

      Donating books to the school library is another way……primary level is a good start.
      The problem is some teachers have their own opinions, been there and done that.

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