Jewish students’ experiences on campus seem to always be top of the agenda, whether that is because of an incident at an Israel Society event or because of allegations of anti-Semitism This paints a very disturbing image for those outside of that exclusive bubble.
Before you accuse me of belittling the concerns of Jewish students on campus, I want to clarify that there are certainly incidents on some campuses. Students have been targeted for being Jewish or Zionist, events have been disturbed and in some instances their welfare has been directly challenged. It can be challenging: there is an NUS National President who still refuses to apologise for using anti-Semitic rhetoric, far-right extremism continues to rear its ugly head and Zionism is still often seen as a dirty word. I am the last person to say that these are not concerns, but I can also tell you that Jewish students refuse to allow this to determine their experiences on campuses. It is entirely unfair for the discourse to be defined by those who are off campus and it almost always belittles the true accomplishments of Jewish students across the UK.
The truth is that most Jewish students just want to enjoy their time at university and achieve a good degree. University is about making friends, challenging yourself and enjoying the freedom of being away from home. It is clear from the JPR report earlier this year that some campuses are more of a ‘must go’ than ‘no go’, whilst the National Jewish Student Survey of 2011 showed that young people choose their campuses based mainly on where their friends are going or the degree that is offered, not because they are avoiding any dangerous university.
These campuses are true communities of Jewish students. They are places where students express their Judaism, try new things and for some, step outside of their home bubbles for the first time. These are not the campuses that are seen as ‘no go’, they are thriving with Jewish activity, from Booze for Jews and guest speakers to parties and lunch and learn sessions. These universities are places of thriving Jewish life.
You may think that if people are choosing certain campuses then they must be avoiding others. It would make sense for someone who is a step removed from campus to assume that smaller Jewish societies are smaller for a reason, and given recent discourse, a reasonable cause could be antisemitism. I challenge this idea. I want to paint the true picture of those campuses less frequently chosen by Jewish students. Whilst there are fewer J-Soc events, and sometimes smaller numbers attending, that does not mean that they are not thriving. The smaller J-Socs are true communities. They don’t have cliques to rely on or large amounts of money for their events, and yet they become campus families. They host each other for Shabbat meals and festivals, and they stand up for what they believe in when others will not.
It’s often easy to just hear the big stories from campuses when times are bad, to be up in arms to defend Jewish students when there are pictures on social media that depict a hostile atmosphere. In reality, this ignores the thousands of positive experiences and stories that the vast majority of Jewish students have. I have the best job in the world because I am able to go and visit these campuses and hear these stories from students themselves. If I could give one piece of advice, it would be this: the next time you see a Jewish student, ask them about their experiences. The true picture on campus is much more positive than you may think.
UJS President 2016-17