In March last year, after a brief argument on social media with a male classmate she had never met face-to-face, Melbourne schoolgirl Nelly*, 16, was shocked to discover he had set up a Facebook group in her name.
But this was no fan club. “Nelly’s Jews”, the group was called. Its location was set as “Auschwitz”, and the accompanying photograph showed the gates to the concentration camp.
Worse still, almost half of her 150 fellow Year 10 students at her non-denominational private school in a leafy suburb of Melbourne had joined the group.
The instigator, James*, had posted offensive cartoons purporting to show Jewish people, and three other boys chimed in. Among the derogatory comments was what Nelly took as a threat of violence, invoking Anne Frank and her fate.
Soon afterwards, Nelly found hand-drawn pictures of what appeared to be Hitler and a Jewish man posted to James’ Snapchat account. After trawling social media she discovered yet more Nazi iconography and anti-Semitic images posted by classmates.
“I don’t understand why he targeted me,” Nelly said. “I had never spoken to him before. I didn’t even know he knew who I was, let alone that I am Jewish.”
A PALTRY PUNISHMENT
After Nelly and her family approached school authorities, James received a punishment: a single day’s suspension. While the school principal made a speech describing exactly why what had happened was wrong, he named Nelly as the victim, and did not name her aggressors. As a result, Nelly faced yet more schoolyard taunts.
Nelly’s story of social media-based anti-Semitic bullying is far from unique. Melbourne-based Jewish group the Anti Defamation Council, says it has received as many as 70 complaints in recent years of similar incidents involving high school students being targeted on social media.
It reflects the country’s rising anti-Semitism, this time played out on platforms that can be hard to police, with schools reluctant to get involved in what they say are out-of-hours activities.
“Students who approach us are traumatised and afraid, and their parents too are distraught,” said ADC chairman Dvir Abramovich. “The families are concerned that if they notify the schools of the incidents then the anti-Semitic abuse will escalate and the children will become an even bigger target.”
A NEW WAVE OF RACIAL HATE
Late last year a separate Australian Jewish advocacy group, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, released its annual report which keeps count of anti-Semitic incidents across the country, which showed a year-on-year rise of 59 per cent.
A total of 366 incidents were reported, including harassment, vandalism, threats by email or phone and posters or stickers.
“There has been a noticeable emboldening of the far right, as has been occurring in much of the Western world,” said the report. It details the rise of various far-right groups such as the neo-Nazi Antipodean Resistance, which has called for the death of all Jews, and the Lads Society, which last year infiltrated the Young Nationals.
Much of the report is concerned with hate material posted online. Websites like Gab.com have recently emerged as platforms for those wanting to indulge in hate speech; indeed, Gab came under fire when it was revealed that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter was an active member.
What is uniquely worrying in this current case, according to Dr Abromovich, is that high school students are being directly targeted on social media, often by people in their own school communities.
The incidents he knows about are all from Melbourne, which is home to Australia’s largest Jewish population, but Dr Abramovich points out that it is indicative of what is likely happening across the country.
“Anti-Semitism is a growing problem in Australian schools that has real-world victims, and needs to be tackled head on,” he said.
‘INTIMIDATED AND AFRAID’
Other students have come forward with their stories. Kayla*, a 15-year-old from a public high school in Melbourne, described seeing a Snapchat post by a classmate, in which he and another boy rapped anti-Semitic lyrics they had written themselves.
“They spoke about sexualised things concerning Jewish women,” said Kayla. “It made me feel intimidated and afraid.”
Bella*, now 21, was undergoing her final exam preparations a few years ago, while a student at a private Jewish school. She was part of a Facebook group offering mostly scholarly support for final year students, with about 60,000 members from across the state.
However, after noticing an upswing in comments laden with religious bigotry, Bella posted asking for tolerance. The post attracted scores of comments, most of them anti-Semitic in nature. Then, without warning nor explanation, she was blocked from the group.
“It made me question whether you should actually stand up for what is right against what’s being said, because of the backlash you’ll receive,” said Bella. “Most of my friends saw it, but questioned me for speaking out and making myself a target.”
Yet another student, Lila*, 16, was a member of a Facebook Messenger group called 16+.
When a member found out she was Jewish, she found numerous vile and abusive anti-Semitic messages directed towards her. The members who sent the messages also changed their nicknames to “Adolf Hitler”, “Adolf Hitler the Original”, and others
Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, a former Twitter executive, said the issue of online bullying is a growing trend, with more than half of young people having seen bigoted abuse online.
“We cannot underestimate the lasting scars that this kind of targeted online abuse can have on a child, well into adulthood,” said Ms Inman Grant via email.
“Both parents and schools have a role to play, and we need to make sure victims have access to support and resources, and report cyber-bullying to online services and our office.”
However, all the teenagers interviewed pointed out that reporting the issue to school authorities and official channels can just make the issue worse by attracting yet more bullying.
All quoted in this story requested anonymity as they did not want to attract any further heat. Some are deeply afraid of what the repercussions could be, pointing out that the perpetrators are intimidating characters.
They all said they believe the anti-Semitic attitudes they encountered began at home, and were sharpened by constant exposure to bigoted comments and memes online.
Nelly, who took seven days off school at the time of her online bullying, said she lost her entire group of friends, including her best friend, over the incident. “And I was deeply upset that almost 70 of my classmates, including many I thought of as friends, read it and did nothing,” she said.
“This has one million per cent changed my life.”
* Names have been changed