For some time now, there has been a depressing series of incidents in Oxford with antisemitism as the clear commonality between them. Every term or so, a serious antisemitic incident occurs. Whether it be a student society inviting a speaker with a history of antisemitic remarks, a candidate running for a student election who’s made antisemitic comments, or a prejudiced article in a student paper, there’s usually a bit of a furore while solutions are found, and then the incident is promptly forgotten once resolved. Non-Jewish students offer varying levels of allyship and care, but concern and interest broadly stays limited to Oxford’s Jewish students. Ultimately, the response is reactive rather than proactive. With no solutions aimed at erasing the scourge of antisemitism on campus, this pattern will continue to repeat, subjecting cohort after cohort of Jewish students to the grim cycle.
It was in response to a particularly nasty incident involving Ken Loach’s invitation to speak at a college at the beginning of this year that the inspiration came to take a more proactive approach to antisemitism. The urgency of this was only underlined during the flare up in the Israel-Palestine conflict in May, when many of our fellow students – through sheer lack of education about antisemitism – began amplifying the views of antisemites online and in person, making Oxford at times a scary place for Jewish students. It was in the backdrop of this that Oxford JSoc began working with Oxford’s Student Union to attempt to provide comprehensive antisemitism awareness education to the new cohort of freshers.
Due to Oxford’s college system, this was no easy task. The independence and autonomy of colleges has its benefits, but it also meant that each of Oxford’s forty colleges had to be individually contacted and persuaded to run an antisemitism awareness session for their freshers. Happily, it seemed that many of these colleges were in fact eager for their freshers to take this training. Especially after the fallout of Ken Loach’s invitation to speak in Oxford, which was widely reported in the student press and united students to an unprecedented extent in allyship, many members of the college common rooms which run freshers’ events comprehended the need for widespread awareness about, understanding of, and opposition to antisemitism on campus. Following a mixture of repeated emails from JSoc and the Student Union and requests from Jewish students, eighteen colleges requested that JSoc run antisemitism awareness sessions for their students.
After training from the Union of Jewish Students, who supported us throughout the whole process, JSoc committee members were ready to deliver their sessions. Overall, the process ran incredibly smoothly. At some colleges, up to a hundred and thirty students – practically the entire cohort of freshers – attended training delivered by the Jewish Society, with many students asking important questions at the end of the session. The presentations broadly explained the Jewish community and its customs (since many students had never met a Jewish person before arriving at Oxford), before explaining a brief history of antisemitic tropes and how they apply today. Importantly, the session also addressed the line between antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment, which is often crossed both inadvertently and maliciously on campus. By the end of freshers’ week, over six hundred Oxford students had attended the training sessions, with all of these students now hopefully more educated, aware, and committed to the fight against antisemitism.
There are no false illusions that this initiative will stop antisemitism at Oxford. Unfortunately, there will always be steadfast racists who will not be convinced by a half-hour antisemitism training session. This is no quick easy fix to antisemitism on campus, but it will go a long way towards mitigating it. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt after over two years of being at university and experiencing antisemitism, it’s that the small things count. Whether it be college common rooms passing a motion in solidarity, supportive social media posts by those in the wider student community, or even just a friend listening while I vent about a case of antisemitism, allyship against antisemitism is crucial. The new cohort of freshers will be more effective, educated, and committed allies in the fight against antisemitism both on campus and in the wider world. And if because of these sessions even just one student thinks twice before making an antisemitic remark, that will go some way towards denting the disheartening cycle of antisemitism on campus as we slowly wear away at this malicious prejudice until it no longer rears its ugly head.