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Conflict in the Middle East, antisemitism on British campuses

Friday 21 May 2021

Whenever violence flares up between Israel and the Palestinians, harm is done to students thousands of miles away. A more robust response is needed

“I wish someone would come and burn you out like Hitler.”

“Just commit suicide already.”

“Jews got no history except being slaughtered everywhere they go.”

For most British Jews, thankfully, antisemitism is not an ill that troubles our daily lives. For the past 350 years, Britain has been a safe harbour for its tiny Jewish community, which represents just 0.3 per cent of the population. We sing the national anthem at our weddings, and recite a prayer for the welfare of the royal family in synagogue each week. Despite the nearly 2,000 incidents of antisemitism reported every year, the British Jewish community lives mostly in peace, albeit with protection.

Every so often, however, the fragile bonds that keep antisemitism confined mostly to the darker recesses of the internet break – and it crosses into the mainstream. The most regular trigger for this is a resurgence of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as was previously the case in 2014.

This has never been more vividly illustrated than in recent weeks, during the latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. And, in the UK, it’s been especially vivid at universities. The examples above are just a few of the messages that Jewish students at UK universities have received.

The organisation of which I’m a trustee, University Jewish Chaplaincy, provides in-person support to over 8,500 Jewish students at over 100 universities across the UK. Our chaplaincy teams deliver ongoing, non-judgemental welfare and pastoral care, as well as a “home away from home” for all Jewish students. Sadly, they are also needed to help students deal with the ever-present threat of antisemitism.

A report published in December 2020, titled Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2018-2020, found 123 antisemitic incidents affecting Jewish students, academics and student bodies in 34 different towns and cities across the UK during the prior two academic years – and that’s just the reported incidents

Our founding life president, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, understood this well: “Student years are among the most challenging for young Jews. It’s often the first time they’re away from home meeting people and ideas that are unfamiliar. It’s unnerving, it’s challenging, it’s threatening; especially today with the amount of anti-Israel activity on campus.”

That activity – and worse – is currently in overdrive. The Community Security Trust, the security organisation for the UK Jewish community, has recorded a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK during this period, including verbal abuse, threats, and a very large amount of hatred in social media and online.

To give just one, very visible example: on 16 May, a convoy of vehicles draped in Palestinian flags drove through Jewish areas of North London, using loudhailers to shout, “F*ck the Jews,” “F*ck their daughters,” “F*ck their mothers,” and “Rape their daughters”.

But not all antisemitism draws such attention to itself. The Union of Jewish Students, an essential partner for us on campus, has shared examples of abuse that have been reported to them. Some students have felt so threatened that they have not left their rooms, while others have decided to leave campus altogether and spend the rest of the term at home.

Israeli students, in particular, have faced abuse on campus that has, for some, affected their mental health to a significant degree. One Israeli student at a London university has tried to respond to antisemitic challenges from her peers on these complex topics, and was told: “If our voices disturb you, nobody feels sorry for you.” She is under pressure from her family to leave what is now perceived as an unsafe environment for an Israeli student in London, to return to Israel.

Speaking in the Commons after these events, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said that “no one could fail to be appalled by the disgraceful scenes of antisemitic abuse…. A lot of young British Jews are discovering for the first time that their friends don’t understand antisemitism, can’t recognise it and don’t care that they are spreading it.”

For worried students, having a person they can turn to for advice and support in times of distress has been priceless. University Jewish Chaplaincy employs 11 rabbis or rabbinic chaplaincy couples who, between them, cover 101 universities across the UK. Throughout the last two weeks, chaplaincy services have been in high demand from students, offering advice and a listening ear. “We are very lucky to have the support of our chaplain who has offered to speak to anyone in our community who is feeling emotional or vulnerable at the moment,” says one student who asked not to be named. “Our discussions have served as a safe space for young Jewish people to discuss and process their emotions around any antisemitism that they may have experienced at this time.”

Meanwhile, chaplains have also been in regular contact with the university authorities in their locations to ensure that they are aware of the hostility that Jewish students regularly face and to ask for their support. With only 85 out of 133 universities even signed up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, unfortunately, this support is not always as forthcoming as we might wish.

The chief strategist and rabbinic head of UJC, Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski, writes that “the future of Jewish life in the UK will be decided on campus during Jewish students’ formative years”. For Britain’s Jewish community, ensuring that our students have a positive experience at university is nothing less than fundamental to our survival.

Catherine Lenson is a trustee at the University Jewish Chaplaincy, an organisation that supports Jewish Students at dozens of universities across the UK.

This week, UJC will be engaging in its most significant fundraising campaign in its 50-year history. Our students would be deeply grateful for your support.