My parents often talk about a 9/11 moment – the instant in time in which they found out a plane had hit the Twin Towers in New York, and that the world would never be the same again. For today’s Jewish students, I think that moment came on Saturday 7 October.
I, for one, woke up bleary-eyed in a friend’s spare room in Birmingham to see the headline blaring from my phone: “Netanyahu – we are at war.” I woke up pretty quickly after that – doom-scrolling through X and Instagram, while making sure that my friends and family in Israel were still alive. “It’s going to be a crap week on campus”, I told my friends. And how right I was.
Indeed, while the bodies of over a thousand men, women and children were still warm, some people – including students – responded not with shock, mourning, or empathy; instead, they rejoiced. There was a litany of tweets, celebrating the murder of babies. “Decolonisation is not a metaphor,” they exclaimed, as if to ask whether there could be a Palestinian state – as Jewish students have long advocated for – without these gruesome horrors taking place.
They liked tweets labelling this horror as a “day of celebration.” They praised the actions of Hamas, a proscribed terrorist group, leading to at least one arrest. The idea that those in positions of responsibility in the student world had a duty of care to their Jewish students seemed to have flown out of the window. There was no more beating around the bush; instead, it seemed that the Jews deserved to die.
When the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, which should be a weekend of celebration – of singing and dancing around the synagogue – was over on Sunday night, my phone blew up. For the rest of the week, I was flooded with messages, coming in faster than I could reply to them. Students’ unions and universities were releasing statements which equivocated and prevaricated, unable to even condemn the actions of a proscribed terrorist group. Jewish students, including first years who only left home a couple weeks ago, were grieving and mourning their murdered friends and families, attending virtual funerals in between lectures and seminars.
Worse still were the groups actively celebrating Hamas’ actions. Ignore the fact that Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK, they said. Really, those civilians had it coming. Even those from the hippy peacenik kibbutzim deserved their senseless murder. No Jew will ever be good enough. These groups gaslit Jewish students; an Intifada is a wholly peaceful series of events, they explained, rather than a series of terrorist attacks in Israel, including against a pizza restaurant, discotheque, and Passover meal.
All the while, campus authorities have refused to crack down. UJS has written to students’ unions and vice chancellors, asking for zero-tolerance of support for terror or incitement of violence, reinforced security on campus, and welfare provision for Jewish students, and JSoc leaders have campaigned for these changes on campuses across the country.
We have received very many positive responses (as well as a few that were not so positive), but even more did not respond to us, as if to say that Jewish student welfare is simply not a priority. Jewish students may only be on campus for a few years, but collective memory lingers for longer than many may think. We’ll remember the apathy, equivocation, and indifference that administrations have taken when we have needed it most.
And so, maybe calling the attack on Israel a 9/11 moment is misplaced. After 9/11, students’ unions did not release woolly statements referring to “recent events in the Americas” or “a flare up in violence in New York.” American students were not marginalised, alienated, and made to feel unsafe on their campuses as a result of violent anti-American prejudice. And those in power certainly did not cheer on the actions of al-Qaeda, or celebrate the attack as a landmark act of decolonisation.
Jewish students should be able to expect better on their campuses. The ball is now in the court of campus authorities to acknowledge this and take action.