By Marcus Dysch
April 4, 2011
It's not easy being a Jewish student at a British university.
Nights of celebration and recognition from your peers and elders must seem a long way off when you are forced to spend part of your campus experience being physically or verbally abused for either simply being Jewish, or defending Israel.
But at last night’s UJS Student Awards the very best of the Jewish campus world’s positive, pro-active, work shone through.
While the news pages of the JC are all too often filled with the horror stories from campuses, this was a chance to celebrate the fantastic work undertaken by our students in their societies, on their campuses and throughout the communities in which they live and study. These were the stories that fill the pages of the JC On Campus section, but are all too often missed by the wider Jewish community in place of the less palatable campus experiences.
There were examples of success from every part of the country. From St Andrews JSoc in Scotland taking home the developing JSoc award, to Bath JSoc’s Aurel Diamond picking up the education award, every area was represented and had a tale to lift even the most pessimistic campus reporter's heart.
What struck me most about the students at the dinner was their camaraderie, their backs-to-the-wall spirit. For all the boisterous chants of “Leeds, Leeds, Leeds” from the Yorkshire JSoc team, or the “Vote Nottingham” pleas from Midlands students, the overriding impression was of a group united in their desire to not only defend what they believe in, but to have as much fun as they can while doing so.
CST’s Mark Gardner made an apt point, referring to how the political situation on campus sees students develop something of a siege mentality, but how out of that comes “comradeship” going far beyond traditional student friendships.
Around 50 individuals were short-listed for awards. There are too many to list in total, but look at some of the winners for an idea of the lengths students go to, on top of their everyday studies.
Take Ilana Fenster for example, the winner of the prestigious Hillel Alan Senitt Outstanding Contribution Award.
Ilana is 22 and studies at Nottingham. But on top of her essays and exam revision she has, in the past two years, organised Freshers’ Week fairs, Holocaust Memorial Day events, reacted to anti-Israel campaigns, set up pro-active speaker events, represented UJS at NUS Conference, lobbied MPs in Parliament, visited a handful of other campuses to help her peers and combated Israel boycott motions, and much more.
It’s easy to dismiss students as boozed-up tax-dodgers and fire extinguisher tossers, but that stereotype is far from the truth when it comes to the vast majority of those in higher education.
Their social action work, volunteering and charity efforts are too-quickly forgotten about.
JC On Campus has long hammered home the point that Jewish students are on the frontline against antisemitic and anti-Israel attacks to a far greater degree than their parents and grandparents in leafy Hampstead Garden Suburb, St John’s Wood or Alderley Edge.
While there were a number of community representatives at the awards, they came mostly from the charities that either support students all year round – such as University Jewish Chaplaincy and CST – or those sponsoring categories – World Jewish Relief, UJIA.
It would have been nice to see some of the even bigger community bigwigs and perhaps a few MPs or Jewish "celebs" in attendance. It may be that they were invited and couldn’t make it, but they should have been there come what may.
UJS chair Alex Dwek and his committee have almost faultlessly run a tight ship this year despite challenging political and economic times. They have supported, and been supported by, Jewish students at large and small JSocs everywhere in Britain.
Our students need to know that the community really does have their backs when it comes to defending Jewish life on campus.
We are often encouraged, rightly, to stand up for Israel. But we should also do more to stand up for our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters who take on the haters through gritted teeth and with a tremendous helping of humour and comradeship.