OPINION: How I coped with the worst antisemitism crisis ever faced by Jewish students

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OPINION: How I coped with the worst antisemitism crisis ever faced by Jewish students

Stepping down as Union of Jewish Students president, Edward Issacs finds reasons for renewed hope for Jewish campus life after the horrors and repercussions of 7 October

UJS president Edward Isaacs discusses rising antisemitism on campus
UJS president Edward Isaacs discusses rising antisemitism on campus

As I come to the end of my time as UJS president, reflecting on what can only be described as a year like no other, there is one word which really sticks out for me. Hope.

While my year did not begin on October 7, sadly the horrific events of that day came to define the year. When planning UJS’ response, I knew the situation would be bad, but I did not expect the unprecedented levels of vitriol and hatred that was unleashed upon Jewish students, continuing to this day. I am still shocked that we had to release a statement on October 9 condemning students glorifying and celebrating Hamas’ horrific attack two days prior.

The ensuing campus crisis brought into sharp focus what continues to be at stake – the existence of Jewish life on campus, and in turn, the future of our community. UJS’ mission as the voice of Jewish students, leading, defending, and enriching Jewish life on campus suddenly became very real.

Shocking scenes on campus. Screenshot: YouTube UJS

We had to succeed in our mission, because how can we guarantee our Jewish future if the future of the Jewish community feels unable to identify with their Judaism?

Failure would mean a generation of young Jewish people feeling unable to be openly and proudly Jewish due to the worst antisemitism crisis on campus in recent history. We could not allow that to happen. The enormity of the year ahead quickly dawned on me and I knew I had to find the courage to hope that our work would secure the future of our Jewish community.

The ensuing campus crisis brought into sharp focus what continues to be at stake – the existence of Jewish life on campus, and in turn, the future of our community.

It was clear that the UJS team had to dig deep to succeed. Supporting Jewish students facing death threats and physical assault, as well as supporting many others who felt like campus is not a place for them is no small feat. Yet while the reality facing Jewish students was well reported on, it was the response of Jewish students which gave us all hope to keep going.

Post October 7, I reasonably suspected that JSocs may be reticent to host events given the perceived risks. Who could blame a JSoc for cancelling a party being hosted in a UJS Hillel House which was vandalised two nights before? Yet, in practice, Jewish students did the exact opposite. Two nights after the UJS Leeds Hillel House was plastered with graffiti, Leeds JSoc held its biggest ever party in the same house. Having travelled the country, it is clear Jewish students are insatiate for campus life than ever before, testament to their firm belief in living meaningful Jewish lives on campus.

Yet looking to the future, we must productively channel our hope, because as the late Rabbi Sacks said, ‘Faith is realism that has been touched by hope. And hope has the power to transform the world.’

To guarantee our future community, we must have faith, because to hope means to have faith in a better future.

We must have faith in the salience of our Zionist identity, knowing that it is not compromised by firmly advocating for Palestinian human rights and rejecting the status quo of the current situation in Israel. What is at stake is our community having a relationship with Israel and it is only through this self-confidence in our ability to advocate for the Israel we want to see in the world that the future of our community, young Jews, will have reason to maintain a connection with Israel.

We must have faith in the dignity of difference within the Jewish community. There are 9,000 Jewish students which means there are 9,000 variations in Jewish practice, belief, culture and opinion throughout the Jewish student world. We must have confidence in our Jewish values to guide productive cross-communal dialogue to ensure we build meaningful Jewish lives for all, especially those returning from campus.

Above all, we must have faith in the value of trusting and believing in the community’s young people because it is this trust and belief that secures our future. Despite what they are facing, Jewish students still retain their agency to shape their future.

Yet we must empower them to exercise their agency, because a generation of young Jews feeling that they don’t have a stake in our wider community is a generation of Jews lost. Listen to Jewish students and empower them, because the faith you place in them now will pay dividends as they grow to be our community’s future leaders.

Being UJS president has been the honour of a lifetime. Thank you to the Jewish community for the faith you’ve put in me to lead UJS during this unprecedented year, and thank you to Jewish students for giving me the courage to hope in a future worth fighting for.

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