This article first appeared in the Jewish News.
In the past week I’ve heard a lot about what it’s like to be a Jewish student.
I’ve heard that it’s extremely difficult, especially if you support Israel. But it’s not Jewish students saying this; it’s others who let their social media feeds convince them that Jewish students are under attack in the UK.
Yet the reality is that Jewish students tell a different story, and the wider community should be listening to them.
The CST recorded 27 anti-Semitic incidents affecting Jewish students, academics, student unions or other student bodies in the first half of 2016, compared to 11 in the first half of 2015. There were 21 in the whole of 2015.
It’s true that the rise in anti-Semitism on UK campuses is a real concern for Jewish students, as is the level of anti-Israel activity that they are having to face.
This past year has seen allegations of anti-Semitism in Oxford University Labour Club, intimidation of Jewish students at KCL and more recently at UCL; incidents that have raised issues of anti-Semitism and extreme anti-Israel activity that institutions and students’ unions need to be doing more to address.
We have also seen the election of an NUS president whose past rhetoric “smacks of outright racism” and who has failed to address anti-Semitism in the student movement.
We’ve seen the manifestation of a culture in the student movement that accepts anti-Semitism and fails to challenge it. Yes – the challenge facing Jewish students is real.
Last week’s incident at UCL was completely unacceptable. No student should be intimidated for what they believe in or what they choose to engage with.
Last Thursday’s events prevented any space for debate let alone nuance. I fully believe in the right to protest; I also believe in the right to freedom of speech; but most importantly, I believe in the right of all students to feel safe. Unfortunately that was severely compromised at UCL.
We look forward to seeing the outcome of the investigation by UCL, and we’re working with them to ensure that not only is appropriate disciplinary action taken, but also that appropriate measures are put in place to protect freedom of speech, the right to protest, and crucially, protects the welfare and safety of all students.
Nothing will stop Jewish and non-Jewish students alike engaging in debate and discussion around Israel and Palestine and we were reassured by the fact that the event at UCL went ahead, with a similar event with Hen Mazzig in Glasgow going ahead the following day without any issues.
In fact, despite the challenges facing Jewish students, this month has seen the publishing of two reports that have the potential to significantly impact Jewish students’ lives for the better.
The Home Affairs Select Committee report into ‘Anti-Semitism in the UK’ had constructive recommendations regarding campus, particularly around UJS’ and Jewish students’ engagement with NUS and on a potential resource produced by Universities UK (UUK) on ‘how to deal with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and how to ensure that pro-Palestinian campaigns avoid drawing on anti-Semitic rhetoric.’
The recent UUK Taskforce report into harassment and hate crime, with which UJS engaged heavily, demonstrates that more is being done to address anti-Semitism within universities. Many of the recommendations, especially on ‘ensuring a variety of reporting mechanisms’ and ‘providing training for staff on the nature and context of anti-Semitism’, can provide solid foundations for institutions to establish frameworks to tackle anti-Semitism. Following the publishing of this report, UJS will present a session on ‘Identifying and tackling anti-Semitism and harassment of Jewish students’ to potentially over 100 Vice Chancellors and senior university officials at this Thursday’s UUK Conference.
It is in this context, where two recent reports have provided recommendations that can be the foundation of improvements in tackling anti-Semitism across higher education, that we find ourselves in – rather than one where Jewish students are under attack.
Anti-Semitism is an issue that we are working every day to eradicate on campus and in society, and with that I’m proud to announce UJS’ Lobby Day of Parliament on 7th December, which we are running in conjunction with the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism.
I believe that Members of Parliament have a role to play in the fight against anti-Semitism on campus and the debate in the House of Lords last week was a welcome development. I look forward to further steps being taken to ensure all Jewish students have a safe and positive experience on UK campuses.
From Aberdeen to Exeter, Jewish students are organising more events than we’ve ever seen. On the night of the protests at UCL, Jewish and non-Jewish students at Bristol were discussing Israeli settlements as part of their Israel-Palestine Discussion Group and students at Goldsmiths were holding an interfaith event with the Christian Union; these are just two examples from a vast amount. The day after, hundreds of Jewish students were sitting down together for Friday night dinners.
This is the context that we find ourselves in, one where it is great to be a Jewish student on UK campuses, and we won’t let anyone tell us otherwise.
UJS Campaigns Director 2016-17