One politically active London student even told researchers: “We’ve had people threaten to kill us. Even today we had to hide the location of our Jewish society events.”
While most Jewish students were enjoying campus life, brushes with anti-Zionism and antisemitism could be unsettling for some.
One Nottingham University student reported a housemate in tears after a lecturer had said what the Nazis did to the Jews, “the Jews are now doing to the Palestinians”.
The study, carried out by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research for the Union of Jewish Students, was based on in-depth discussions earlier this year with 65 students in 10 institutions in five cities. They came from three of the largest centres of Jewish student life — London, Birmingham and Nottingham — as well as Bristol and Warwick.
“Most feel safe and are having a largely positive experience,” the report, Searching for Community, stated, “which comes as something of a surprise to some, given what they were told to expect as Jews on campus.”
But there was clear evidence anti-Zionism and antisemitism were “alive and well in student political discourse and action and that these often feel deeply uncomfortable, hurtful and threatening to a proportion of Jewish students.”
Some, however, felt the risks of hostility on campus were overstated. One Birmingham student said: “I’ve only had one negative comment this year, so I was actually quite shocked that there weren’t any more.”
Most found non-Jewish students “tolerant, accepting, curious and non-judgmental”.
Most Jewish students engaged in discussions on Israel “fairly infrequently”, although the atmosphere around Zionism could leave even those not involved in politics uncomfortable.
Where there was antisemitism, it was more prevalent on the street than on campus and suffered particularly by kippah-wearing boys.
Most of those interviewed sought the company of other Jews, at least on occasions, but Jewish organisations faced a challenge in providing a broad enough umbrella to accommodate different religious and political views.
On larger campuses, the report said, “there does appear to be a mainstream position that is religiously traditional/Orthodox, fundamentally pro-Israel and with a strong focus on creating exclusive Jewish spaces. Jews who sit practically or ideologically outside of this position seem to struggle somewhat to find their way in, or, upon encountering these views, opt out.”
While Bristol students reported co-operation between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups, this appeared to be “the exception rather than the rule”.
UJS stood “head and shoulders” above other organisations providing Jewish activity.
Social events like a Willy Wonka Purim Party or a Booze for Jews social proved the most popular, while egalitarian prayer ranked the lowest.
A speaker tour by the Israeli author Ari Shavit excited the most educational interest, suggesting Israel was a topic Jewish students were ready to explore, “perhaps particularly if done independently of advocacy training or an association with a particular political agenda”.