'Toxic atmosphere' at Oxford University

By Simon Rocker, February 5, 2009

Jewish students at Oxford University have accused it of appearing to “appease” organisers of a sit-in at the university library last month in protest at Israel’s actions in Gaza.

The incident is also said to have disturbed some Jewish academics. One University Reader reportedly told a meeting that “within five years, Oxford will be a Jew-free zone”.

In an official reaction to the protest, the Senior Proctor of the university, Professor Donald Fraser, who oversees disciplinary matters, recommended “a relatively lenient course of action” against the demonstrators.

He also agreed to take up several of their concerns, including writing to Balliol College, “drawing attention to the protestors’ concerns about the title of the lecture series inaugurated by Shimon Peres”.

In November, the Israeli president — braving noisy hecklers — delivered the first of a Balliol lecture series on world peace sponsored by the publisher Lord Weidenfeld.

Rachel Romain and Rafi Cohen, joint presidents of Oxford JSoc, said the Senior Proctor’s statement had been “received with great unease within the Jewish student body”.

They said that while “he has agreed to look into four out of five of the protestors’ demands, there is no mention of the contrary opinions held by other students or those who think that the protest was a disgrace.

“It seems that the university authorities are all too ready to placate and appease those whose actions catch media attention rather than the majority of students who favour dialogue.”

For his part, Lord Weidenfeld regretted that the Senior Proctor appeared to be unaware that the peace lectures “were not specifically concerned with Israel”.

The aim was to invite different people involved in bridge-building and peace-making in different parts of the world, he explained. “The next lecture will be about the Balkans.”

Releasing the text of his letter to Balliol, Professor Fraser said that the protestors had been told that unless they left the building on the evening of the protest, they could face criminal charges.

He wrote: “The occupiers and protestors asked me to express to you their wish that ‘Balliol reconsider the title of the lectures inaugurated by Shimon Peres’.

“Of course the Proctors have no role in the affairs of Balliol unless called by the college to uphold some aspect of university discipline. I therefore pass this letter to you... as a matter of trust between me as Senior Proctor and the occupants and as a request by them.”

He also revealed that a student had written to him, warning that “for Jewish students, the university and the city have developed a toxic atmosphere in which I and many others feel increasingly alienated and unwelcome”.

But Professor Fraser said the student seemed to have been “reassured” by his response.

He had also written to the university’s vice-chancellor, hoping that one eminent Jewish figure with strong links to Oxford “can be brought round, for it really would be regrettable if senior alumni were to be seen to attack the university externally on the basis of misleading evidence.”

Last updated: 2:47pm, August 13 2009