At Limmud, two different people asked me where I go to university, heard my reply of “Sussex” and looked shocked. “It’s not very friendly there, is it?” asked one of them in hushed tones. I asked what they meant. “Not very friendly to Jews!” they explained.
Well - although I did once receive an email from the university saying: “We understand that due to your Jewish faith you cannot sit exams on Saturdays or during Ramadan” - the doomsayers could not be more wrong.
Jewish students at Sussex have a great time. Our JSoc – run jointly with Brighton University – is small but very friendly, and we have the newest Hillel in the country - perfectly located in the city centre - for our events (and also the odd game of pool or Nintendo Wii).
Of course, I’m guessing the Limmudniks aren’t concerned about our access to pool tables, but more about antisemitism. But where they get the idea that Sussex is a hotbed of anti-Jewish thuggery, I have no idea.
The JSoc has no record of any antisemitic incident involving a student as far as our collective memory goes back, around six to seven years.
We even have experiences of the opposite.
Last year, while I was JSoc President, I was appointed Returning Officer by the student union, responsible for the fair and impartial running of our elections and referenda. And in April, we had a referendum on boycotting Israeli goods.
I had been mentally bracing myself for someone to challenge me; for someone to say: “Surely the Jewish Society President can’t act impartially during a vote about boycotting Israel?”
But nobody did. People voted for the boycott, which was no surprise, but not one person said anything offensive or suggested that I might have split loyalties. Even MPs aren’t that civilised: see Paul Flynn’s comments about our ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould.
How many campuses are there where a sitting JSoc President (and member of the Board of Deputies) could be trusted as an impartial figure during an Israel-related referendum? Far from being “not very friendly to Jews”, Sussex showed itself to be uniquely friendly and fully inclusive.
So, the main message is: Sussex University is unusual in all sorts of ways, and our JSoc’s members have a unique Jewish experience – even if the odd fliegel gets stolen by a seagull. But it’s far from the experience of persecution and constant battles for civil rights that some people seem to believe.
Sussex is one of the friendliest campuses in the country for Jewish students; don’t let anyone – man, woman or seagull - scare you off from applying to study here!
Gabriel is a third-year Politics student at the Sussex University, a former president of JSoc and a member of the Board of Deputies.