Report co-author Suzanne Rutland says the project had exposed ‘disturbing cases’ of religious vilification across schools in Melbourne and Sydney. Picture: Georgia Court

Nicholas Jensen
The Australian
August 25, 2022

A confronting investigation uncovering significant religious bullying in Australian schools for most major faith groups has found “rampant” levels of vilification in the classroom and playground, with families and schools “ill-equipped” to deal with the abuse levelled at children.

The four-year investigation, led by academics Zehavit Gross and Suzanne Rutland, cited disturbing instances of bullying against Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian students in Australian schools in a series of interviews with teachers, families and children, arguing that school principals are often unwilling to acknowledge the extent of religious discrimination.

The study, to be released next week at a conference in Sydney, will urge state and federal education departments to increase spending on resources to combat religious discrimination in schools, saying parents and children are often forced to “downplay” episodes of vilification, fearing the situation could be made worse “if they make a fuss”.

Sydney University’s Professor Rutland said the project had exposed “disturbing cases” of religious vilification across schools in Melbourne and Sydney, arguing acts of violence fuelled by religious or racial hate had become increasingly common.

“The research initially began as a project about anti-Semitism, but quickly grew into a multi-faith study as we began to see similar discriminatory trends against Muslim students.”

In one interview cited in the study, a student from a Sydney secondary school said Jewish students were commonly subjected to anti-Semitic taunts. “If you are Jewish you are teased. They call you stingy. They throw you five cents … Or they throw money on the ground and call out ‘who is the Jew?’,” the child said.

Another said students would regularly take scissors out in the classroom, chiding Jewish boys and asking if they “wanted another brit (circumcision)”.

The report details instances at a school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs currently disciplining several students for directing “Heil Hitler salutes” at Jewish students.

“We recorded many instances of Muslim girls having their hijabs pulled off at school and being the subject of violence,” Professor Rutland said, adding that Hindu students were regularly targeted for their Bindi – a round red dot considered to be a third eye.

Professor Gross said it was essential school leaders confront the findings contained in the report and don’t “simply neglect the subject as many have decided to do”.

“The problem is that schools are now largely illiterate when it comes to religion, and many government schools seem blind to much of the prejudice that we found by speaking to students,” she said.

Sheik Mohammad Trad, from the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said reports of religious bullying highlighted the need for broader religious education within the government school system, as well as the importance of an anti-racism contact officer on campus.

“There’s a lot of hidden and subtle discrimination that happens as well as the explicit forms of bullying … I think it shows why most are not publicly comfortable in expressing their faith.”

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Darren Bark said the study’s findings were sadly unsurprising, noting the recent surge in religious bullying of Jewish students. He called on the country’s “interfaith partners” to unite and raise awareness of the problem through education.

As part of their address next week, professors Gross and Rutland will appeal to the UN to recognise religious bullying in its charter, acknowledging “its global implications”.