It is a tragedy that some Jewish students feel unable to take part in their university’s Jewish Society. J-Socs are supposed to be our home away from home: somewhere we can go for kosher meat, foul-tasting kiddush wine, Yiddishe humour and general Jewish companionship.
For a long time, J-Socs were inhospitable to a range of minority and oppressed groups within the Jewish community: women, LGBTQ students, disabled students, those from a Progressive Jewish background.
This is beginning to change, but there is one minority group that is still marginalised, and that is those students who do not subscribe to the standard Israel/Zionism narrative. There are a significant number of Jewish students who do not believe that there should be a State of Israel.
This isn’t because they’re anti-Semites (obviously); they might be Marxists or they might be secularists, but either way, they’re still Jewish and still deserve to be included in campus groups that exist to make them feel at home after the difficult transition to university.
There are also Jewish students who (like me) are somewhere in the middle; who support the existence of a Jewish State of Israel but don’t want to go on pro-settlement rallies. Who oppose BDS but are secure enough in their identity as British Jews that they don’t need religious events such as Shabbat meals festooned with Israeli flag bunting.
I’m Jewish. I’m a cheder headteacher and regularly lead synagogue services. I was a madrich on a Zionist youth movement’s Israel Tour last summer and I sit on the Board of Deputies. I’m not trying to destroy the Jewish people from the inside, honest.
But J-Socs are there to provide a fulfilling Jewish life for Jewish students who are away from home, often for the first time, and it is a tragedy and a travesty if Jewish students are made to feel so uncomfortable there that they cannot participate.
At UJS Conference, a group of brave members stood up to what they knew was likely to be a majority, and tabled a motion essentially espousing a ‘Two-Soc Solution’. Political support for Israel – campaigning, anti-BDS, visits from academics from the Hebrew University and all the rest of it – could be handled by an IsraelSoc organised by those with an interest in that side of things. And basic provision of Jewish life on campus would become the J-Soc’s sole responsibility.
To be clear, this motion was not “anti-Israel”. The J-Soc President who tabled it is a Zionist, and he did so to pursue what he saw as the legitimate interests of Jewish students. There is no reason to think that the State of Israel will be harmed if its supporters on campus are called ‘IsraelSoc’ rather than ‘J-Soc’.
And there is very much reason to think that Jewish students will be better represented if those who do not support the conventional Zionism narrative are not ‘roped in’ by association to advocacy and campaigning with which they disagree.
The most controversial section of the motion drew a link between J-Socs’ Israel advocacy activities and anti-Semitism on campus. Far from implying that Jewish students are responsible for anti-Semitism, the point was to highlight that campus anti-Semitism is often (ignorantly) caused by anti-Israel sentiments. Surely anything we can do to highlight the vital difference between these phenomena is virtually compulsory.
At a recent J-Soc Shabbat dinner I attended, the room was covered in Israeli flags. A flight crew from El-Al joined us and gave a talk, and the Executive Director of the Zionist Federation was in attendance. Is it any surprise that some misinformed BDS campaigners get the impression that ‘The Jews’ are collectively their enemy and should be collectively targeted?
All Jewish students, I venture, want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion (for religious Jews) or culture (for secular Jews).
Only some – perhaps a majority, but absolutely not a totality – want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS. Suggesting that these two functions be separated does not imply opposition to either of them, just that a clean separation will make everyone more happy. (Does this sound familiar, Bibi and Abbas?)
By all means disagree that J-Socs should be inclusive of those who don’t support the conventional Israel narrative. I’d rather you didn’t, obviously, because it leads to the isolation of those unfortunate enough to go to a university whose J-Soc is only interested in its members’ politics and not in their religious and cultural fulfilment.
But please don’t suggest that those trying to make J-Socs more inclusive are anti-Israel. There are real enemies out there. Your fellow Jewish students are, actually, friends.