That was then, this is now: campus change

By Arieh Kovler, September 27, 2011
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It's hard for today's students to judge whether campus life is better or worse than in the past. Most Jewish students are at university for three years, and those few who become sabbatical officers in student unions or UJS will only extend that time by a year or two. My five-year window on to Jewish student life started at Bristol in 2001 and finished with a sabbatical role at the Association of Jewish Sixth-formers.

AJ6, now defunct, was founded in 1975 to prepare Jewish school-leavers for life on politically hostile campuses.

Then, the National Union of Students was controlled by the Labour Party's student wing. NUS promoted "No Platform for Racists", banning racist groups from campuses. After a 1975 United Nations resolution declared that "Zionism is a form of racism", student unions started closing "racist" Jewish Societies: 26 were banned, and others were forced to run Israel events in secret. There was a further wave of J-Soc bannings in the mid-1980s, starting at Sunderland Polytechnic.

Eventually, more moderate student activists, led by the future Labour MP John Mann, took control of Labour Students and, through it, NUS. But student unions still passed anti-Israel boycotts all through the first intifada. Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir harassed and threatened Jewish students in the early 1990s. The two Palestinians in prison for the 1994 Israeli Embassy bombings had been anti-Israel activists on UK campuses.

Things heated up again after the outbreak of the second intifada. In 2005, Jewish students resigned their NUS roles to protest against inaction on antisemitism, sparking national interest in campus racism.

University life has been politically challenging for Jewish students for at least 35 years. However, today's Jewish students (and their parents) believe that campus is more dangerous than ever. For some, it can distort their university experience.

Partly, it's a side effect of other positive trends. The huge increase in Israel tours and gap years means Jewish students today are closer to Israel. They identify with Israel and perceive anti-Zionist campaigning as an attack on their identities.

More people now go to Jewish schools. These schools strengthen Jewish identity and education, but they also mean that university is Jewish students' first direct experience of virulent anti-Israel hostility in the rough-and-tumble of campus politics. They haven't thickened their skins with sixth-form political argument.

Jewish students have an excellent support network. J-Socs provide much more than campaigns and politics; they run educational events, make Friday-night meals and provide a sense of community.

There is less pre-university support. Preparing Jewish students for campus politics gives them the skills and confidence not to feel afraid. Since AJ6 closed, no agency has run an ongoing political campus preparation programme.

Once, only the 20 people in the room would know when an extremist guest made a speech justifying terrorism. Now the video is put on YouTube. University newspapers are read all over the world. Emails are forwarded on and on, spreading and sometimes distorting the latest news.

Could a student union ban a J-Soc today? Maybe, but UJS and its political allies would protest, NUS would expel the union, the university would reinstate the J-Soc, the government would condemn the banning and newspapers worldwide would rightly call it a scandal. That's progress.

Arieh Kovler is a former head of the Fair Play campaign

Last updated: 2:03pm, September 27 2011