Family & Education

Drilling into the Bristol dilemma

When your dentist brings up campus antisemitism, what's a mum to do?


Senior male dentist in dental office talking with female patient and preparing for treatment.

You know your life has reached a new low in terms of lack of excitement when you receive a text from the dentist prompting you to book an appointment, and you think: Ooh, an outing!

And you know you’ve been slouching around in track-pants for way too long when you put on jeans instead and feel as if you’ve dressed up. For months, I’ve been wearing lovely, lovely stretchy jogging bottoms (multiple pairs — worn and washed in rotation, if you’re worrying that lockdown has made me throw all niceties out of the window).

But now that I am going out on a dental adventure, I feel I should don proper clothing. The dentist is in North Finchley, four miles away in an entirely different postcode — really, I think it justifies earrings and mascara as well as trousers that aren’t basically PJs.

Never before have I noticed how vice-like a proper waistband feels. I’m sure it has nothing to do with my lockdown baking obsession (well, the results have to be eaten — I’m not putting my homemade spelt sourdough out for the parakeets).

As a child, I was very scared of the dentist — even though he was perfectly nice. I particularly found the sound of the drill when I had to have a filling traumatic — it felt as though it were coming from inside me, all my dark fears made manifest into a prolonged, inescapable whine. Once, on being told I would need a filling, I jumped up out of the chair and ran behind the desk in the corner of the room and refused to come out until my mother and the dentist agreed it could wait.

Now, a few decades and a few dentists later, I am a much more compliant patient. I do not run around the room or attempt to hide behind the furniture. It helps that my dentist is lovely — fantastically calm and reassuring. Also, that he has no desk in the room behind which I might retreat.

Despite its lack of handy hidey-holes, his surgery is very nice, and the one place where I would literally be happy to eat off the floor it’s so clean. Now in the era of Covid, even more so, as every door handle has a little protective sleeve that is changed for each patient and they ‘fog’ the room between appointments (it’s an anti-viral vapour — it doesn’t mean that the dentist is poking around my gums unable to see).

As we are in a single household, my son Leo can have his appointment immediately before mine (though my dentist still fogs the room — compliance is his middle name).

Leo is in the lower sixth at school ‘studying’ for his A-levels, ie watching the entirety of Netflix from the sofa, and starting to think about university.

When it’s my turn, I am given an anti-viral liquid to sloosh and hold in my mouth for a whole minute (it has interesting top-notes of embalming fluid and takes massive restraint not to expel it in a jet over the floor).

While I am therefore unable to speak, the dentist, who belongs to the same shul as we do, says he hopes he hasn’t over-stepped the mark (he hasn’t) by telling Leo about an antisemitism issue at the University of Bristol.

He refers to a piece by Daniel Finkelstein in The Times about David Miller, a professor of political sociology at Bristol. This professor claims that ordinary British Jewish students are somehow being directed by the state of Israel and that a rather sweet project to have Muslims and Jews make chicken soup together was actually part of a sinister plot to normalise Zionism among Muslims.

I was aware that there was currently an issue at Bristol, but had decided not to tell Leo for a number of reasons: these things change all the time and I don’t want to make him feel paranoid by telling him to rule out this, this and this place as they’ve had problems with antisemitism; one of my nieces went to Bristol a few years ago and had no problems — and also I believe Leo should apply to university if he finds a place he likes the feel of and it offers a course that appeals to him, not on the basis of “Is it good for the Jews?”

The dentist then tells me that Leo said well maybe he would go to Bristol and try to change things there. This from a boy who often has to be levered off the sofa with a crowbar.

Afterwards, I spoke to Leo to check what he’d said. He explained it wasn’t that he was planning to storm the barricades, just that he thought it was important not to slink below the radar if there’s a problem.

He understood that there is a clear difference between, say, dealing with the Spanish Inquisition when your wisest options might be run, hide, or comply, and a problem within an institution such as a university, where you should complain and stand up and be counted.

“Racism, antisemitism and sexual harassment are pretty much everywhere, Mum,” Leo tells me. “You probably can’t avoid them.”

It seems that, despite — or perhaps because of the restrictions of lockdown — he is growing up.

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