Jewish chaplains dealing with ‘relentless barrage of antisemitism’ on UK campuses

Bristol campus protest. Image credit: @AmeliaJac0b

By Lianne Kolirin

The government has handed £500,000 to Jewish chaplains on campus to support students facing growing antisemitism at British universities.  

The University Jewish Chaplaincy (UJC) is due set to receive the money to providing welfare services, following an announcement by the Department for Education last week. 

The news came on the same day that prime minister Rishi Sunak met vice-chancellors from some of Britain’s leading universities, at which he told them he expects them to take a “zero-tolerance” approach to antisemitic incidents and to take responsibility for protecting Jewish students. 

According to the UJC’s website, the role of Jewish chaplains on campus is to provide “pastoral, spiritual and practical support”. It currently supports more than 8,500 students at over 100 universities in 13 regions.

After the prime minister’s announcement, UJC Chairman, Uri Goldberg said: “Since Hamas’s terrorist attacks on 7 October, 2023, Jewish students and chaplains have endured a relentless barrage of antisemitism on campuses across the country. Throughout this time, our chaplains have worked tirelessly to provide residential faith-based welfare support to our Jewish students as they continue their courses as best they can in the midst of continuous waves of hatred and disruption.”

The meeting at Downing Street was called after pro-Palestinian students set up camp at more than a dozen university campuses across Britain, including Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Warwick and Leeds. 

The student protesters are demanding that universities divest from Israel — in particular by severing relations with companies supplying weapon components — echoing a wave of demonstrations at universities across the United States that have in some instances resulted in violent clashes with police. 

Unlike in the US, the demonstrations here have so far been peaceful. However, many Jewish students are said to be feeling fearful and intimidated.

Among those to attend the No 10 meeting was Edward Isaacs, president of the Union of Jewish Student (UJS) and his colleague Guy Dabby-Joory, the organisation’s head of campaigns. They delivered an emotive speech, detailing the change in atmosphere for Jewish students at British universities since 7 October and the subsequent war in Gaza. During that time, they said, antisemitic incidents have increased almost sixfold. 

“Jewish students have received deaths threats, Jewish students have been physically assaulted, and Jewish student property has been damaged,” they said, adding: “This truly has been the worst antisemitism crisis on campus that we have seen for a generation, and its impacts run deep throughout the Jewish student population.”

What has made matters worse, they said, is the lack of support that Jewish students have felt from outside of their community.

“Other campus leaders have often felt unable to stand in allyship with Jewish students, and this has only been compounded by universities often failing to singularly condemn instances of antisemitism, making Jewish students feel alone, marginalised, and vulnerable on campus.”

They called on the university leaders to take decisive action. “While we respect the right to protest, where there are instances of criminality universities must draw upon their relations with police to ensure students see the consequences of their actions,” they said.

Also issuing a statement after the round table meeting was Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK. She described the meeting as “positive” and said she welcomed the opportunity for a “frank discussion”. Antisemitism on campus was being taken “very seriously,” though it was far from simple, she said. 

“The current conflict has raised tensions across many communities and we have been clear there is no place for intolerance on our campuses,” she added. “In line with the sector’s clear commitment to freedom of speech, it is important that universities allow and support students and staff to debate and discuss this crisis, and the challenging issues it raises, but within the law, and with respect and tolerance.”

Another person who acknowledges that tricky balance is Sharon Booth, executive director and founder of Solutions not Sides, a UK charity that runs educational sessions with young people in secondary schools about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

While the charity does not operate on campus, the all-important messaging should be the same, Ms Booth said in conversation with The Standard podcast. 

“I don’t think freedom of protest should be shut down in university but freedom of speech and protest should be balanced with the need to ensure that hatred isn’t tolerated in our society and that we maintain campus cohesion. 

“That means that any protest on campus or anywhere else first of all should be clear in its stated aims. Some of the protests are, some of them could do better with that. Its messaging should also be free from racist tropes and stereotypes that demean whole groups of people and I think the protests shouldn’t be directed at certain groups in our society.” 

She added: “Ultimately dialogue needs to happen between those who wish to protest and those who have concerns.” 

Anwar Akhtar is a writer, journalist, producer and director of The Samosa, a London-based media and arts charity working to create understanding across cultures. 

He recently visited the campus of Leeds University where he met both pro-Palestinian demonstrators and members of the Jewish student community for Conflict on Campus, a piece for Radio 4 that aired on Sunday,. 

In it, Akhtar heard from various young people about their positions, motivations and what they would like to see change. He conducted interviews with students on both sides of the debate, while also detailing some of the flashpoints that have occurred there in recent months — including an attack of vandalism on a building for Jewish students. 

On both sides protesters chanted through megaphones, waved flags and brandished banners. There was a police presence but “nothing heavy-handed”, Akhtar said. “It was loud and boisterous, but there wasn’t really any trouble.”

And yet there was little to feel optimistic about either. Akhtar said: “One of the things I found quite upsetting was if young people are just hollering at each other with rage about rights and wrongs on both sides there’s not going to be a resolution to the tensions in the UK and we’re going to have to find a way to speak to each other about just how difficult this is. 

“Maybe it’s too early to talk. For now, perhaps the best we can hope for is more empathy and respect for each other’s pain. These conversations are needed right now even though it’s really hard. The sheer magnitude of the conflicting narratives is almost overwhelming at times. Alongside the horror of the war, at this stage, all I can hope for is that young people talk to each other.”


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