Divided: How New Forms of Anti-Semitism Affect the Lives of Jewish Students on British Campuses?

Along homework and exams, Jewish students in the UK face growing anti-Semitism. On campus, they come across political pressure, humiliation and threats. However, they won’t let the bad environment stop them, and resume their Jewish activities in the universities.

by Shani Barenboim

The upcoming elections in the UK are creating a massive debate in British media, as well as around the globe. The future of GB is at stake, the relationship with the EU isn’t clear and among various social problems, there are new anti-Semitic voices in the country that threaten the Jewish minority. A scene that shows worrying anti-Semitic trends are British campuses – Jewish students are exposed to new types of the phenomena lately, that affects their student life. The following article will try to portray the life of Jewish students on British campuses, the way they deal with different threats and how they continue to express their Jewish identity in light of new anti-Semitic challenges.

Disclaimer: the writer is a Jewish student from Israel


UK’s Jewish population is the 5th largest in the world, and one of the biggest in Europe. According to the British Union of Jewish Student (UJS), there are 8,500 Jewish students in universities across the country. Many of those students are taking part in student societies that are connected to their identity: there are 65 Jewish Societies (“J-Soc”), 20 Israel Societies and 2 Jewish-Israeli societies. Those societies are supported mainly by UJS, along with other Jewish and Zionist organizations.

Mor Sofer, an emissary of The Jewish Agency to UJS, says that the purpose of those organizations is to make the students feel ‘home away from home’: “The Jewish students can express their culture and identity, along with non-Jewish students that are welcome to learn about Judaism. Students share the culture with other students and organize activities with different speakers, games and social time”.

The Israeli society in the Exeter Uni have organized a joint dinner along with the Jewish society of the campus

It’s the fifth year of Sofers life in the UK. Visiting various universities on a regular basis, he claims that the British political sphere affects deeply the climate on campus: “On the first couple of years that I’ve been here, anti-Semitism was on the fringe. You wouldn’t hear that the Jews are acting like Nazis or active calls to annihilate Israel. After hearing those voices in the political sphere, it shows up also on campuses”.

Anti-Semitic climate is present also inside the class. Rebeca Selt, a second-year student at Exeter says: “I was running a seminar about Queer theory and its effect on pop culture. People have made relevant points, but then a girl with full knowledge of me being Jewish made a comment and said that because there’s such a strong LGBTQ presence in Tel Aviv, Israel is using that to cover up the monstrosities they commit to the Palestinians. It made me feel very uncomfortable and it felt like it was aimed at me, because it had nothing to do with the topic I’ve talked about”, she tells and adds: “We need to remember that this is quite a ‘white’ uni – there aren’t many minorities, so people have grown up in environments where they think its ok to make little anti-Semitic comments here and there. I’ve had comments like ‘thieving Jew’“. Selt also point out the upcoming elections as a critical time for those remarks: “There’s obviously an issue surrounding anti-Semitism in the Labor party. People say it’s not true, or it’s not as bad as the Jews make it, and it’s just frustrating. I feel like we’ve been ignored again“.

Yet, both Sofer and Selt insist that life on campus is generally good for Jewish students, but they do suffer from anti-Semitism. Daniel Kosky, campaigns organizer in UJS, adds that it also depends on the way each uni deals with the subject.

What kind of support are we talking about?

“For example, there was a guest speaker in Nottingham, a politician who got kicked out of his party because of anti-Semitic remarks, and the university didn’t prevent the event. In contrast, many places adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism which defines all type of anti-Semitism, including anti-Zionism”.

How the situation of Jewish students is different from other minorities?

“There is a problem of racism in the UK”, he explains. “The equality commission has made an investigation into this and found out some quiet big issues across all faiths – 1 in 20 students said they left their studies due to racial harassment. I wouldn’t say there is a competition of who is suffering more. But in the experience of Jewish students, anti-Semitism can be often more cryptic”.

A figure of (freedom of) speech

Throughout our conversation, Kosky points out Jeremy Corbyn, as one of the key figures that affect the public debate. This week he lost the support of the Jewish movement in the Labor party, the Chief Rabbi of the UK accused Corbyn as “failed the battle against anti-Semitism” and Corbyn declared he’ll protect all minorities omitting the Jews from his list.

Dr. Siam Bhayro, associated professor in early Jewish studies from Exeter University, explains that although for many Jews, anti-Semitism is associated with WW2 as a far-right phenomenon, Labor was created upon anti-Semitic views as well: “There were people on the left, from the very beginning of the Labor movement in Britain who viewed Jews as participants in Colonialism, and Colonialism is evil, and therefore being Jews is being evil. That narrative has always been on the left, but it’s often been kept as a very minor voice. Now we’ve got somebody in control of the party who comes from that part of the movement that’s always been very obsessively seeing all the ills of the world as being as a result of Colonialism and associated with that narrative is his very anti-Jewish polemic”, he says.

Yet, having some criticism about a policy of a country is very democratic. Robin Moss, the strategy director of UJIA, a British organization that connects UK Jewry and Israel, explains that this criticism is sometimes crossing into anti-Semitism: “It happens when someone attacks Israel as a cover for anti-Semitism”, says Moss. “We see it first as a delegitimization of the Israeli state. You’re more than welcome to criticize Israeli actions, but saying the Jews don’t deserve a country – this isn’t legit. Second, double standard towards Israel. For example, having a campaign against Israel because its discriminating LGBTQ right to get married. Why is it only about Israel? There are many other countries that discriminate LGBTQ marriage! It puts Israel under a different light than the rest of the world. Finally, it’s the evil rhetoric that’s being used describing Israeli actions. Calling IDF soldiers ‘Nazis’ – it’s different than saying that their deeds were wrong”. Moss adds: “Since Corbyn took over the Labor party, many people on campus feel much freer to use all those three tactics”.

However, those statements, might summon calls for dis-respecting the freedom of speech. Moss points out that there is a debate on the differences between freedom of speech and hate speech: “It seems ridiculous saying that everything against Israel is hate speech. Also, saying things on campus is different than saying them on the street – it’s a community that cares for her friends and committed to them. If people on campus say that there are things that make them feel not-legitimate as human beings – then the university should protect you”, says Moss.

Here against the fear

The last factor Moss mentions is one he calls ‘the most devastating'” – the chilling effect on Jewish identity: “Jewish people are being put in a horrible position of the ‘good Jew’, saying that ‘good Jew criticizes Israel and bad Jew supports it’. They feel they must justify themselves. You can see that in the growth of Israel societies which are not J-socs, because the Jewish societies don’t want to become something controversial about Israel. The Jews themselves feel that their identity is supposed to be hidden, or that they need to apologize for it“.

But not everybody goes with the flow, such is Warwick University, that has a Jewish-Israeli society. Angus Taylor, head of the society, explains that in Warwick, it isn’t realistic to have two different societies: “I think it is because Warwick has a quiet small Jewish community. Also, for me, Israel is a central part of my Jewish identity. I believe hopefully one day we will all end up in our homeland. I think that Judaism and Israel are so linked, that separating them in any way, on campus or in our minds, isn’t necessary”.

As part of their activities, The Jewish-Israeli society in Warwick, came together to taste some Israeli wines

Warwick campus made its way to the headlines lately because of an anti-Israel incident: a former commander from the IDF that founded the humanitarian program to help Syrian refugees, was invited by the society to speak on campus. A large group of students protested the event, and some of them even got inside the room and interrupted the talk in such a severe way, that security had to move it. Taylor, who attended the event, tells it changed his sense of safety in the university: “To be treated in such a way that we felt as Jewish and or Israeli students, under threat and intimidation, harassed even, I think it made me rethink everything. I wouldn’t say that Warwick is a dangerous place for Jewish students or to support Israel, but I think it can be unwelcoming at times”.

Do you feel that your society has different challenges than other societies here?

“I think some of the events we do that focus on Israel, bringing in people who individuals on campuses may have issues with – are unique. That’s the polarizing nature of the conflict. But if people come and try to protest or stop our events – I’m not going to give in to them. So I think that yes, it is more difficult to support Israel on campus, probably more difficult to be a Jewish student on campus, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to turn our faces away – it just means that you have to be a little bit stronger when it comes to fighting the good fight”, sums up Taylor.

Photos of students from Jewish and/or Israeli soicieties. Taken by Shani Barenboim.

The elections that will take place on Thursday will be a milestone not only for the UKs relationship with the EU, but also with its Jewish community. Wheatear Corbyn will gain more power or not, the Jewish population feels that he has changed the status of the community. Will the feelings of the future British generation become the reality of the present one? Only the voters will tell.

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