Last year was full of upheaval of the most unpredictable kind. For Jewish students in particular, it was enormously unpleasant due to the shocking intensification of visible campus antisemitism. More than any other year in recent memory, 2016 tragically reaffirmed the long-recognised reality that Britain faces a particularly difficult problem with antisemitism at its universities.
In January, Jewish students at King’s College London were violently attacked at a pro-Israeli student gathering. In February, the co-chair of Oxford University’s Labour Club exposed the society’s ongoing tolerance for antisemitic behaviour. In April, the National Union of Students elected a president who publicly professes antisemitic tropes of the worst kind. In October, Jewish students at University College London were (again) attacked for hosting a pro-Israeli speaker and in November, three Jewish students were the victims of a racially aggravated assault at the University of Cambridge. In total, 27 instances of antisemitism on campus were recorded by the Community Security Trust in the first half of 2016 alone - compared to 11 in 2015.
In this dire context, many Jewish students across the country were truly thankful to see Baroness Deech addressing this important issue on the front page of The Daily Telegraph. Baroness Deech – herself, a former independent adjudicator for higher education – was particularly concerned about the idea that antisemitism might dissuade young Jewish people from applying to certain universities. To quote her: “amongst Jewish students, there is gradually a feeling that there are certain universities that you should avoid.”
We were therefore surprised and bewildered to see comments made by Josh Nagli, the campaigns director of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), decrying Baroness Deech’s interview as “inflammatory,” a “disservice” and even “frankly wrong.” While supposedly speaking on behalf of Britain’s entire Jewish student population, Mr Nagli not only misconstrued Baroness Deech’s comments, but went so far as to completely contradict all statistics, painfully arguing that “antisemitism is not rife at universities.”
To bolster his unsubstantiated assertions, Mr Nagli quoted the testimony of a student cited in the 2011 National Jewish Student Survey. Had he read the study in detail, he would have discovered the alarming statistic that 42 per cent of Jewish students were found to have either witnessed or even been subjected to an antisemitic incident. He would have also realised that in the year preceding that study, an NUS survey found that 31 per cent of Jewish students were “victimised in a religious hate incident” – a higher proportion than any other religious or ethnic group on campus.
Since the two surveys were conducted, the problem of campus antisemitism has certainly not improved – if anything, it has only worsened. We need only see Josh Seitler, president of the organisation Mr Nagli represents, writing only two months ago in The Times that “every single day Jewish students are forced to…prioritise defending themselves against antisemitism.” Similarly, in his presidential manifesto, UJS President-elect, Josh Holt, lamented how “antisemitism has become a fact of Jewish life on campus.”
While there may or may not be any “no-go zones” for Jewish students – a term, incidentally, never used by Baroness Deech in her interview – we cannot deny that a significant proportion of Jewish students have at some point in their university careers, been made to feel enormously uncomfortable, simply because of their background.
This disturbing reality is compounded by an inability of universities to properly address this troubling phenomenon – as Sir Eric Pickles has commented, “for some time universities have at best been inactive about antisemitism.” In November alone, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator fined Britain’s fifth-largest university for failing to seriously address claims of “antisemitic harassment” filed by a disabled Jewish student.
While Mr Nagli claims that ‘‘there are no ‘certain universities’ that [Jewish students]…avoid,’’ it is surely questionable that Jewish students will chose to attend a university where visible antisemitism is unchallenged by the relevant authorities.
Regardless, while many Jewish students on campus may feel comfortable with publicly expressing their Judaism, this clearly does not nearly hold true for all Jewish students. Purporting the converse is both false and unrepresentative of the depressingly rife presence of antisemitism on British university campuses.
When we have reached the point where Jewish students have been given monetary compensation for relentless harassment they have faced, we need Jewish leaders to expose the problem we face – doing the opposite is to not empower Jewish students, but to silence them in their time of greatest need.
When we have reached the situation where politicians feel the need to amend existing legislation in order to tackle campus antisemitism, we need to give a voice to marginalised students instead of brazenly ignoring them.
Instead of wrongly dismissing the problem at hand, we call on the UJS and its President-elect to live up to their own commitment to not be “apologetic in the face of abuse”. As proclaimed representatives of Jewish students on campus, our expectation is that they utilise the enormous resources available to them – and properly call out the bigotry we face. They should make it clear that Jewish students will not tolerate antisemitism in any shape or form – nor will they stand for the even more troubling inability of universities to guarantee them a safe learning environment, free from antagonism and hostility.
Jonathan Hunter is graduated with a BA and MSt from Brasenose College, Oxford and currently studies for a Graduate Diploma in Law. He is a co-founder of the Pinsker Centre. Shlomo Roiter Jesner is a second year Politics student at Hughes Hall College, Cambridge and is also the Cambridge University CAMERA campus fellow.