The basic ask universities can’t seem to grasp: Protect your Jewish students

Professor David Miller (Screenshot, via Jewish News)
Professor David Miller (Screenshot, via Jewish News)

During what is the busiest time of their academic year, whilst Jewish students have had to complete coursework, sit online exams and all during a pandemic, they have now also been forced to endure online abuse, direct harassment and even death threats. In just the past ten days, CST figures have shown that antisemitism has risen by almost 500% in the last week and Jewish students seem to be at the front line.

For me, university was where I learned independence, found lifelong friends, and gained valuable life skills such as how to drink, cook (enough to get by) and how to get served quicker at the bar. However, university was also where I learned about how to confront antisemitism.  My experiences included a lecturer who asked if (((we))) kicked Palestinians at J-Soc events, having to confront two course mates who were openly discussing the control of the Rothschilds, and two members of a sports team wearing t-shirts with swastikas and the phrase ‘the Jews deserved it’ drawn on. I would love to say that I fear, but sadly I know that too many Jewish students may relate to my experience.

Antisemitism can come from anywhere or any person, and universities must be doing so much more to deal with instances when they arise and educate students and staff in order to prevent it.  On this front, too many universities are failing miserably.

As the Head of Campaigns at the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) I have, too often, seen how universities have found it easier to dismiss instances of antisemitism or kick the reports they receive into the long grass, rather than actually deal with the incident, or even support the victims. Earlier this year I undertook research that showed that only twenty-nine universities in the UK had adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

The adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is only a first step and I am proud of that, due to the hard work of Jewish students, UJS and our allies, over one hundred higher education institutions have now done so. However, this is nowhere near enough. As seen by the action (or inaction?) of Bristol University over the ongoing saga surrounding their lecturer, David Miller. This crucial adoption CANNOT be a tick-box exercise. Universities must be obligated to actually use it.

Trust has broken down between Jewish students and universities, many do not see the value in reporting antisemitism to their universities anymore. The adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is supposed to be part of the solution, despite Jewish students having to fight tooth and nail for it.

The need for actual zero tolerance has been pushed to the forefront this week.

I have been fighting campus antisemitism for six years, first as a student and then as a UJS staff member, and this week has been the worst week I have ever seen. I have had to deal with Jewish students receiving death threats, J-Socs receiving antisemitic comment after antisemitic comment and the National Union of Students (NUS) blaming antisemitism, not on antisemites but on the “Israeli forces’ violent attacks on Palestinians”.

Our message to universities, student unions and NUS is clear; Jewish students do not want to hear you speak out against antisemitism, they need to see action.  Now is the time to prove to Jewish students that you have their back.

Jewish students should be able to enjoy university without the fear of antisemitism and harassment. It is the most basic ask and yet it is one which British universities do not seem to grasp.

About the Author
Bradley Langer, former head of campaigns at UJS
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