Leeds Uni promises action after urgent talks between vice-chancellor and Jewish groups

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Leeds Uni promises action after urgent talks between vice-chancellor and Jewish groups

EXCLUSIVE: Meeting follows defacement of university JSoc's Hillel House building on Friday with 'free Palestine' graffiti

Graffitti on Hillel House Leeds University
Graffitti on Hillel House Leeds University

Leeds University has pledged to take appropriate action after a 60- minute emergency meeting between its vice-chancellor and the presidents of Leeds Jewish Society (JSoc) and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) on Monday afternoon.

The talks followed an attack on the university’s JSoc building Hillel House, which was defaced with antisemitic graffiti on Friday.

It also follows threatening messages, phone calls and accusations of war crimes against Leeds university chaplain Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, an Israeli who returned to the UK from IDF reserve duty in January.

Edward Isaacs, UJS President, 2023

UJS president Isaacs demanded a meeting on Friday 9 February, but Vice Chancellor Hai-Sui Yu was in London.

Today was the first opportunity to meet to discuss the ongoing situation and Jewish News understands there were at least eight additional attendees from across UJS and the university in the room.

In a statement, UJS said: ‘Leeds JSoc and UJS met with the vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds to discuss the university’s response to recent antisemitic incidents.

Leeds University JSoc Chair Robbie Schuster

“While we were reassured by the university’s promises, actions speak louder than words. We expect the university to act decisively to protect its Jewish students. We will continue to ensure Jewish life on campus thrives in Leeds and across the UK and Ireland.’

Speaking to Jewish News, in a joint statement Emma Levy and Robbie Schuster, chairman of Leeds JSoc said they were “grateful the University leadership met with us today. Jewish students must be able to feel safe and proud of their identity on campus. Leeds JSoc will continue to offer an eclectic mix of events, parties, socials and much more to ensure Jewish campus life doesn’t just survive, but truly thrives.”

Emma Levy, Leeds University JSoc President.

Ahead of the meeting, Levy said her main priority was ensuring the university cut ties with James Dickins, the emeritus professor of Arabic, who leaked the address of Hillel and encouraged pro-Palestinian activists to protest against the appearance of an Israeli rapper on campus.

Dickins is also chair of the Leeds branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Photographs on social media showed how the main centre for Jewish students at the uni had been daubed with red-paint graffiti reading “Free Palestine” and “IDF Off Campus”.

In posts on social media as recent as 11th February, Dickins called for Israel to be excluded from the 2024 Paris Olympics “due to Human Rights violations”.

Following the defacing of the building, Levy visited the home of Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, his wife Nava and their two children, together with Aidan Grills, chief executive officer of Leeds Student Union.

It was, Levy adds, “really emotional. It was a lot. As we were there, we saw the vile messages popping up on their phones. It was just the most heartbreaking thing to see. Everyone loves them. They are being absolutely vilified.”

The family has since fled Leeds for their own safety.

In a statement released on Monday evening, the University of Leeds said it is “deeply shocked and saddened by the events of Friday 9 February during which Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch received threats to his safety and that of his family and Hillel House was attacked. We understand and share the sentiment that has been expressed within and beyond our community, that antisemitism is a hatred that has no place on campus.”

It adds: “We totally condemn the antisemitic abuse and threats directed towards the chaplain and his family – such attacks on any individual are unacceptable and will not be tolerated from members of the public or our University community.

“The University is supporting West Yorkshire Police in their investigations and will continue to work with his employer, the University Jewish Chaplaincy, to ensure Rabbi Deutsch can provide the support that is so valued by Jewish students at Leeds and the other universities he serves in the Yorkshire region.

“We are appalled that our Jewish student community was also targeted by a criminal act at Hillel House and share the concerns expressed for their safety and wellbeing. The University is actively supporting West Yorkshire Police and the Union of Jewish Students as the property owners as they investigate this incident as a hate crime.

“The University has detailed measures in place to safeguard our students and is further stepping up activity relating to both security and wellbeing. Our campus Security team and West Yorkshire Police are increasing foot and vehicle patrols of the area, and we continue to strengthen our partnership with police and the Community Security Trust (CST), to ensure our community feels safe.

“The Interim Vice-Chancellor and President is seeking meetings with universities in the region as well as our key partners across the city and local politicians, to identify what more we can do together to address issues being experienced by communities in the city and wider region.

“The University is committed, and indeed has a legal duty, to support free speech within the law. Whilst there have been many peaceful expressions of solidarity, we regularly remind everyone in our community of the legal limits of free speech – the University does not support any views or actions which seek to exclude or make any community feel unwelcome on campus.

“More broadly, we are working extremely hard to support and maintain our collective student and staff community. This has included regular meetings with student societies, faith groups and relevant regional and national representatives, to listen, discuss and respond as we identify what more we can do to respond to student concerns.

“Our University counselling and wellbeing services and Leeds University Union continue to offer students help, advice, and a safe space to talk about any concerns and issues.  Any students experiencing anxiety or wellbeing issues that adversely impacts their studies are encouraged to contact their School to discuss support or mitigating circumstances to support them.

“In response to these specific and abhorrent instances of antisemitism, the University of Leeds is determined to protect members of our Jewish community and all those who play such a valuable role in supporting them.”

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