There are roughly 8,500 Jewish students across the UK. Many will have left home with the expectation of adventure as they enter the world of higher education. But for some, this bubble of excitement and new-found freedom has been weakened by what they say is a rising tide of anti-Semitism at British universities.
Third-year student Charley says that her voice as a Jewish person has not only been overlooked by peers, but also by her university, which she would prefer not to be identified.
“My university term started on Yom Kippur, when you’re not allowed to work or use technology,” she says. “It was quite disheartening to know that one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar was so overlooked.”
Charley, who asked to use her first name, did not report this concern to her university, which she would prefer not to be identified. “I didn’t report any of the incidents because there is not a clear and easy way to do it,” she says. “It didn’t seem worth the effort it would’ve taken.”
A December report on campus anti-Semitism by the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that protects Britain’s Jewish community from anti-Semitism, reported 65 anti-Semitic university incidents in 2019/2020 – the highest total recorded in a single academic year, despite it being cut short by the pandemic. Writing in the preface to the CST report, Bradley Langer of the Union of Jewish Students put it starkly: “Jewish students are being failed by many universities.”
From the ideologies underpinning the attacks to the individuals committing them, the CST reports that the details of anti-Semitic incidents can vary. But the impact they have on Jewish students like Charley is clear. Troubled by what they say is a lack of response since the report’s release, she and others are now calling on their universities for more support.
Charley says that the relatively small size of the Jewish student community at her university has kept her personal experiences of anti-Semitism to a low level. However, she says that her Jewish lived experience is often “ignored” by other students.
“For example, in the last General Election, I was speaking to someone who I used to be close to,” she says. “I explained why I felt uncomfortable voting for the Labour Party, though I also stressed I wouldn’t be voting Conservative. I tried again to explain, but each time she laughed at me, ridiculed me, and called my opinions stupid and unfounded. This was over a year ago, and it still upsets me to know she didn’t care about my views or how prejudice against my people affected me.”
While the majority of anti-Semitic incidents recorded by the CST were perpetrated by students, 14 were recorded to have been carried out by staff. The University of Bristol is cited in the CST report as an example of bad practice in its dealing of on-campus anti-Semitism, specifically that committed by a staff member.
In early 2019, two students contacted the CST to inform them of what they felt was anti-Semitic content taught in a lecture by David Miller, professor of political sociology at the University of Bristol. According to the students, Miller presented a diagram of mainstream Jewish organisations subservient to the “Israeli government”. They claim that he used this to argue that the “Zionist movement (parts of)” is part of a global network that promotes and encourages Islamophobia. One Jewish student told the CST that he felt “uncomfortable and intimidated” and concerned that students would believe Miller, “just because he is an academic”. Another Jewish student in Miller’s class told the CST: “I don’t think it is right that I should have to sit in a lecture or seminar in fear. Fear that he will offend me personally, or for fear that he is going to spread hatred and misinformation.”
VICE World News contacted Professor David Miller for comment. He strongly denies all accusations of anti-Semitism and addressed the incident in a Twitter thread.
When contacted by VICE World News about the incident in Prof Miller’s lecture, a University of Bristol spokesperson said that they could not comment on complaints relating to individual members of staff.
Sabrina, a Jewish student at the University of Bristol who also asked to be identified by her first name, made a complaint to the university about Prof Miller’s lecture. She says that she is still awaiting a response, and tells VICE World News of the impact this had had on her mental health.
“The bureaucracy of the university has been incredibly draining,” Sabrina says. “It's been a year and a half since the first day we made a complaint, and we still are in the dark. And still, even with the emotional toll of 18 months, the university has offered no emotional support”.
Sabrina continues: “The only support we’ve ever got is from specifically Jewish charities and organisations. It's been made the responsibility of Jewish charities to look after Jewish students. If charities weren't funding this, then it will be no emotional support for those students experiencing anti-Semitism. The university doesn’t know what Jewish students need, they don’t try to know. We’ve been left in the dark.”
A University of Bristol spokesperson told VICE World News: “We are committed to making our university an inclusive place for all students. We have been working closely with Jewish students to try and understand their specific concerns and worries. A key outcome from these discussions was the adoption, in full, of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism last year.”
Ethan, a Jewish student at the Central School of Speech and Drama, recounts a similar issue at his university, wherein a visiting director said that a particular far-right commentator’s “assholery” is underpinned by his Jewishness. However, in contrast to Sabrina and Charley’s experiences, Ethan commends his university for supporting him from the moment he reported the incident.
“The administration and staff gave me a platform to voice my concerns,” Ethan says. “They took it very seriously. They denounced what the director said, they acknowledged that his statement was anti-Semitic, they confirmed what I was saying to be true.”
Ethan’s problems lay in the inaction of some of the fellow students in the class, who did not question the anti-Semitic statement of their teacher. On moving forwards, he says “the next step in the process of repairing and healing the student community is to work on being an active bystander and not a passive bystander. These moments where we don't call it out, address it, and correct it, is what allows anti-Semitic behaviour to continue”.
Rabbi Alex Goldberg, lead chaplain at the University of Surrey, says that “many Jewish students have a very lovely and ordinary time on campus, but increasingly there are rising levels of anti-Semitism, which is partially reflective of trends across Europe”. France and Germany have both reported a sharp rise in anti-Semitic crime in recent years, while in Britain, a separate CST report shows that anti-Semitic incidents reached a record high in 2019.
“When it comes to anti-Semitism, I always attribute 90 percent to a cock-up, 10 percent to conspiracy theories,” Rabbi Goldberg continues. “For those involved in the cock-ups, it's a matter of educating people about its origins and its inaccuracies, and how best to move forwards. We all make mistakes, I don’t want people to be frightened of having those conversations.”
In reference to those 10 percent that are more malignant than a simple “cock-up”, Rabbi Goldberg says that “the biggest threats today in terms of those who want to create such violence are far-right groups, who dislike a variety of groups, but they all definitely don't like Jews”.
Each of the students we spoke with raised the need for solidarity and allyship in the face of discrimination at Britain’s universities. “Listen, believe us,” says Ethan as his guide to supporting Jewish students.