Unified not uniform
The past months have seen testing times for the Jewish community, culminating in some people attacking our community’s leadership on not defending Israel enough and some Jewish students attacking UJS for defending Israel too much.
It has certainly been an interesting start to the beginning of my term as president of the Union of Jewish Students. Despite this, I have been overwhelmed by the support for UJS and Jewish students across the political and religious spectrum, and heartened by the many common values and concerns that various students and communal bodies share.
To those who say that the community is not doing enough at this time, I wish to draw attention to some clear examples of students standing up and speaking up.
Our campaigns director recently spoke at the Community Town Hall meeting and on a panel with other student leaders about Israel. Student leaders have also taken their own initiative; an impressive example is Eylon Aslan-Levy. A member of our National Council, he set up the Everyday Antisemitism Project and has continued to address Jewish and broader media on the dangers of incitement and attacks against Jews, including from within some quarters of the BDS movement and Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Students have attended every protest, rally and event possible, ensuring that student voices are heard in a range of locations. UJS are fully focused on securing student safety for when they return to campus, and are working with our community partners to ensure this is the case.
In addition: to those who say UJS is wrong to oppose BDS, I must take this opportunity to cite the motion passed at UJS Conference in 2013 with a strong majority, mandating UJS to combat BDS.
In our autonomous J-Socs, hundreds of students from Sussex to Birmingham have chosen to respond to and defeat BDS, with some motions being resoundingly defeated. In each case, students campaigned on their own terms, with leaders in Sussex demonstrating that you can defeat BDS on a Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine and Pro-Peace platform.
Although combatting BDS is a mandated position of the union, as decided by our members, individuals who have different views on this - or other policies within UJS - are welcome and encouraged to join the conversation on shaping the community they want for themselves.
Our generation has to be the leadership that demonstrates to our often fractious community that we can passionately disagree, yet not become poisonously divided.
It is important to remember during this time that we are united as Jewish students without being uniform in opinions. The challenge for all cross-communal organisations is to allow the space for collective campaigning to defend the Jewish community and attempts to delegitimise Israel, whilst allowing space for nuance, sophistication and criticism.
This is represented no better than through the peer-led structures of the union. Whilst these may not be perfect, they allow the space for individuals and for JSocs to shape the messages that they wish to see, and enable them to lead the union that represents them.
In previous years, students have robustly and confidently campaigned on issues that matter most to them. From campaigns such as Sign on the Green Line to Rethink 2014, from running panel events spanning the political spectrum to inviting a range of speakers, students have again and again shown their commitment to two states, and to opposing the BDS movement. UJS offers students the space to voice their opinions.
Students continually pass policies within their JSocs and through spaces such as UJS Conference. They lobby their student unions and defend their fellow students. In the past year, both the University of Nottingham and the University of Leeds have secured kosher food within their student unions.
I am proud that our peer-led, representative and cross-communal union – with our hundreds of passionate and dedicated student volunteers – is gearing up to powerfully and persuasively defend Jewish students (and by extension the community and Israel) whilst maintaining moderate and diverse perspectives.
UJS and JSocs have successfully created communities for Jewish students to feel safe and secure and enjoy Jewish life on campus for more than 100 years. We know it is hard at times to be a community with conflicting views on religion, Israel and everything else in between. But we need to show as student leaders – and as a wider community – that we can respond robustly to the spike in antisemitism and the attempts to delegitimise Israel without turning on each other.
UJS is always here for support, advice and help for students, and is the space for Jewish students of all persuasions to express their beliefs, passions and ideals. Over the coming year UJS will be continuing our work supporting JSocs and Jewish students. We invite all Jewish students to be a part of our conversation and look forward to the coming year on campus.