How my old university has changed since October 7

Leeds University students are faced with Israel hate on a daily basis


Leeds is home to the largest Jewish student population in the UK and Ireland, according to the latest numbers from the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), with more than 1,000 studying in the city.

As a recent graduate of the university, and with a number of friends still there, I visit on some weekends and was there on October 7.

After speaking to a number of different students on a recent return trip to Leeds, all were alert to the increase in antisemitic activity on campus since the terrorist attacks committed by Hamas and the ensuing war, and several were frustrated by the lack of support from university authorities.

Like in London and other major cities, Leeds has also witnessed a number of anti-Israel marches in the city centre.

There has also been an increased security presence from both campus patrols and the police during events for Jewish students.

The prevalence of anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric at the university since the beginning of the war had led to “a general feeling of unsafety”, said one Jewish student.

Incidents have ranged from reports of academics dismissing concerns of Jewish students to the recent controversy over the University of Leeds’ Arab Society football team refusing to play against the Leeds Jewish Society team, Hapoel Hyde Park, to the attacks on social media aimed at the Jewish student chaplain, who was called up to serve in the IDF.

On campus, the University of Leeds’ Palestine Solidarity Group (PSG) has been organising regular demonstrations on campus, such as a “walkout” every Friday afternoon outside the university’s famous Parkinson Building.

The PSG has also been handing out leaflets inside the Student Union building, promoting the walkouts. The leaflets, with the slogan “Intifada until victory, are also displayed on campus.

Through social media, PSG has also encouraged students to take part in wearing a keffiyeh on Thursdays, a headscarf associated with the pro-Palestinian movement, to signal their support for the cause.

One student mentioned that he was reluctant to share his views on the war to people on his course. Benjamin Goldstein, a third-year student, said that although he had personally not encountered explicit antisemitism, “there is an underlying, unspoken hostility toward those who display publicly their support for Israel… These events undoubtedly make our community a nationwide target”.

Louis Deacon, an Emerson Fellow with StandWithUs and a Leeds student, said that all this had contributed to the “state of intimidation and feeling of discomfort” on campus.

As part of his work with StandWithUs, Deacon organised a webinar in the first two weeks of the war with educator Charlotte Korchak, to educate both Jewish and non-Jewish students about current events in Israel.

Although some Jewish students have avoided wearing Jewish symbols such as Magen David necklaces or kippot, many that I spoke to continue to display them.

Aside from experiencing antisemitism on campus, a common feeling among Jewish students was that the university had failed in its pastoral responsibility to them.

The Student Union and the University of Leeds were slow to comment on the war, they said, only issuing a statement a few weeks later.

One student revealed to me that his academic personal tutor had been “completely shocked and unaware that the issue was actually affecting students on campus”, and their only response was to offer the option of submitting mitigating circumstances for poor exam performances.

Another student told me about attending a meeting with the university’s harassment team to discuss abuse she had received on a WhatsApp group. The harassment team had failed to act on her complaint, she said.

A University of Leeds spokesperson said: “The events in Israel and Gaza are deeply concerning and we want to support staff and students who are directly or indirectly affected by these events.

“The University has published information for students expressing concern for those caught in the conflict and highlighting the support available to students from our counselling and wellbeing services.

“Our support teams are also working to identify staff and students who may be directly or indirectly affected and contacting them to see how we can offer support.”

The spokesperson added that “now more than ever, it is essential to emphasise that antisemitism and all forms of hatred have no place at the University of Leeds. As a community, it is important that we stand together and support each other, and our communications remind all students that racism, bullying or harassment are never acceptable.”

They said that the university’s security teams were liaising with local police and CST “to ensure our Jewish students and the entire community feel safe and students can report any incident for investigation and action through our Report and Support portal.”

There have also been prominent incidents off campus that have impacted Jewish students.

A local pizza restaurant announced on their Instagram account that “Zionists are not welcome” and described Hamas as a “national liberation movement”.

The restaurant also offered a “Palestine pizza” on their menu and recently added a post with the slogan: “From the river to the sea” attached to it.

A Jewish student told me that while he had been to the restaurant in the past, he now felt uncomfortable walking past the restaurant, which is near his house.

A spokesperson for West Yorkshire Police said: “A report has been received in relation to posts on social media and West Yorkshire Police is assessing it in line with NPCC, College of Policing and CPS guidelines.”

Against this backdrop of tensions on campus, Leeds Jewish Society students got together with their counterparts from Birmingham to compete against each other in both men’s and women’s football and netball matches.

Hapoel Hyde Park manager Jasper van Veen, whose football team was at the centre of the recent Arab Society story, said that his players were trying to “make our community as safe as possible”.

“We’ve all stuck together as a team, and there’s no point in letting things get us down.”

On a day that brought a sense of unity despite the rivalry between the two Jewish Societies, Birmingham’s Maccabi Selly Oak emerged victorious in the women’s football and netball matches.

Meanwhile, Hapoel Hyde Park men’s team won against Maccabi Selly Oak in a dramatic penalty shootout.

Maccabi Selly Oak women’s manager Sam Ucko said that his team had used the experiences of the last few weeks as motivation.

As with Jewish students at Leeds, Jewish students at Birmingham’s universities had been confronted with disturbing incidents on their own campuses, such as an anti-Israel marches advertised near to where the team trained, he said.

Ucko offered a similar message to Van Veen of how sport had helped to unite the Jewish student community “and not just represent Israel, but represent each other as well. The fact we’re able to come together is brilliant.”

Click here for more news on the Israel-Hamas War

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