Few non-Jewish presidents of the National Union of Students can have found themselves the victim of an antisemitic attack.
But Wes Streeting’s experience of being verbally abused while reading Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel on the London Underground provided him with an insight into the impact of antisemitism and anti-Israel action.
Since being elected in April 2008, Mr Streeting has worked hard to support the Union of Jewish Students, promoting a zero tolerance stance to antisemitism and academic boycotts.
He said the efforts have been successful, with the once “strained” relationship now “a million miles away”.
“The relationship is incredibly strong, and UJS is very much part and parcel of the NUS family,” he said.
Reflecting on the furious demonstrations and lecture theatre occupations which hit British campuses in January following Israel’s military action in Gaza, the 26-year-old from Stepney, east London, pulled no punches.
“I was quite disgusted by the tactics on some campuses. There were a number of occupations which were so-called ‘student occupations’, but there was very little evidence whatsoever that they were being generated by students.
“It seemed to me there were a number of organisers from outside campus coming in to stir things up. The Socialist Workers Party is notorious for trying to use divisive language and tactics around the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a recruiting tool. There was a lot of that going on.
“It’s not fair for Jewish students to go about their daily lives feeling like they are expected to justify or defend the actions of the state of Israel. It’s ridiculous.”
One concern for Mr Streeting is that fear of antisemitism overshadows the fact that Jewish students also face the same everyday challenges as their non-Jewish friends on campus.
Last month, the JC revealed that applications for UJS Hillel’s hardship fund have risen by 30 per cent in the past year.
Mr Streeting said: “At the moment student life is quite tough. People still have The Young Ones perception of student life — lots of late nights, sitting around watching daytime telly and then going out in the evening. But students are working harder than ever before both academically and to fund their studies.
“The ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ which finances a lot of students up and down the country is just as hard hit at the moment as some of its high-street counterparts.”
Many of his predecessors have gone on to reach lofty heights, including achieving Cabinet roles in government. Wherever his career leads him, it seems the Jewish community will have an ally in Mr Streeting.
“One of my good Jewish friends told me she could no longer wear her Star of David necklace. Why should people be made to feel they cannot display who they are and have to hide away their heritage? It’s just mad.
“I’m not frightened to pin my colours to the mast. I have gone out of my way to bring Jewish students back into the NUS family and I’ve taken similar steps with the Federation of Student Islamic Societies.
“There’s so much common ground for Jewish and Muslim students to work on together. I want to see more of that happening.”