When I applied to Oxford University in 1979, my father was appalled. He was a socialist and believed that Oxford was a bastion of conservatism. If I had to ignore his better judgment and go to a hidebound institution that took most of its students from private schools, I must apply to one of five Oxford colleges that boasted they were safe spaces for working- and middle-class students.
Hertford, St Peter’s, Brasenose, Keble and St Catherine’s colleges advertised that they, unlike the rest of the university, were not filled with the children of the upper class. Rather than look for Etonians, they “welcomed” state-school pupils.
In these colleges, students would not be on the receiving end of the sneering snobbery of the English class system. But altruism did not motivate them. As 93 per cent of pupils went to state schools, they could have the pick of the brightest. It was the smart business move. Today, that world has gone. In 2022, the proportion of places offered to state-school students was 68 per cent at Oxford and 72.5 per cent at Cambridge.
But other prejudices have replaced the class prejudices of the 20th century. Now may be the time for a handful of colleges and universities to advertise the fact that, while others might indulge antisemitism, they at least welcome Jewish students. Once again it would be a smart move. The 2021 census showed that 65 per cent of Jews aged 25 to 49 achieved higher educational qualifications, a performance beaten only by British Hindus. Corner the Jewish market and your institute’s ratings would soar.
All colleges would have to do is promise Jewish students that they wouldn’t be called “colonisers” or “traitors” or sent death threats. None of their Jewish students would be able to write, as one Jewish student at Oxford wrote in the Guardian last month: “When I applied to university, I never thought I would have to hide my Jewishness, chillingly echoing how my great-grandparents erased their Jewish identities in the 1930s. University societies do not announce Jewish events publicly; we have increased security on our doors.”
In the US on Tuesday, there was the horrific spectacle of the leaders of Harvard and other elite universities refusing at a Congressional hearing to agree that calling for the genocide of Jews breached their academic standards. Sadly, British universities seem to be going ithe same way.
Why can’t Hertford, St Peter’s, Brasenose, Keble and St Catherine’s colleges offer a safe space for Jews in the 21st century, as they offered safe spaces for state-school pupils in the 20th? Just five out of 39 Oxford colleges would be more than enough and perhaps six or seven universities. One reason why antisemitism is such a popular form of racism is that there are so few Jews living in the UK. You are not taking on a formidable interest group when you go for them. Perhaps one theatre, opera and dance company could not tolerate anti-Jewish racism, one liberal news organisation and maybe a couple of human rights NGOs.
Recognising the need for change is slow because of the unique characteristics of anti-Jewish racism. Notoriously, Jews are caught in a double bind. On the one hand, American-inspired progressive thought holds that white people cannot be the victims of racism. In fact, it is impossible to understand Hamas and radical Islam in general without grasping how much they have drawn from European fascism. By accident or design, however, anti-white leftism makes a reckoning with Islamist antisemitism impossible.
Meanwhile, the far-right believes in a Jewish plot to destroy the white race by flooding the West with immigrants. When Elon Musk endorsed a tweet a few days ago that asserted Jewish communities push “hatred against Whites” that was the conspiracy theory to which it referred. Although antisemitic Islamists present the greatest physical danger to Jews (and everyone else for that matter), progressives dominate the institutions where many educated Jewish people work. Their gravest prejudice is to deny the existence of antisemitism. Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust told me that after the Hamas massacre, he saw the greatest upsurge in antisemitic incidents since the CST began monitoring racism in 1984. Where are the anguished debates in progressive circles about the need to combat such racism? Where are the protests? Why does the sight of security guards outside synagogues and schools not outrage liberal opinion?
Most liberal institutions do not want to take anti-Jewish racism on, even if they make a nonsense of their values by ignoring it. The worst have imbued the argument of the fascistic left that claims of anti-Jewish racism are a Zionist plot to shut down criticism of Israel. This bad faith manoeuvre deliberately turns Jews into caricature villains, like white South Africans in the apartheid era, that no decent progressive can think of defending.
Some welcome changes have been made, most notably by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. I am starting to hear of a small number of concerned university administrators asking Jewish organisations for help. Maybe in a couple of years, Jewish fathers will advise their kids to go to this rather than that college because it takes antisemitism seriously. It would be disgraceful if they are forced to, but better than indulging the pretence that everything is just fine.