OPINION: This undeniably, overwhelmingly, feels different for all Jews

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OPINION: This undeniably, overwhelmingly, feels different for all Jews

In a powerful extract from her essay in the latest issue of Jewish Quarterly, Hadley Freeman reflects on why universities have become the sites of some of the most sickening examples of anti-Jewish hate since 7/10

Students launched an encampment at University College London this week.
Students launched an encampment at University College London this week.

People have a strange reluctance to see Jews as victims, even when the facts are right there.

When Bergen-Belsen was liberated in 1945, journalist Richard Dimbleby reported from the camp what he saw – yet the BBC didn’t want to broadcast the report. Eventually they allowed it, but only after his script was cut in half. His son Jonathan later said that “the BBC needed more sources to support what had happened to Jews and worried that if you mentioned one group of people and not others, it might seem biased or wrong”.

Minimising and even denying the extent of the carnage on October 7 is the new form of Holocaust denial, a specific kind of trauma inflicted specifically and sadistically on Jews. What other country would be attacked and then be derided and vilified? What other minority would need to provide video footage of what terrorists did to them, and still not be believed?

Most people, I once believed, are capable of feeling compassion for the Palestinians, and also horror at what happened on October 7. But since October 8, I don’t believe that anymore. Too many have convinced themselves that all Israelis – all Jews – are bad in order to defend the Palestinians, whom they need to see as pure, oppressed victims. And so facts are twisted, truths conveniently ignored.

The people who write “CEASEFIRE NOW” all over their social media are either ignorant of or uninterested in the fact that there had been a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, until Hamas broke it. (“There’s an ellipsis at the end of that demand,” the solicitor and chair of law and the arts at University College London Anthony Julius said to me. “What those people are really saying is, ‘Ceasefire now … while Hamas re-arm.’ ”)

They don’t care that Hamas will never honour a ceasefire, and they don’t care that Hamas hates women and gay people, never mind Jews. They don’t care that hundreds of thousands of Israelis had been protesting against Netanyahu for much of the past year, and so were hardly in lockstep with him, and no one cares that these allegedly pro-Palestinian supporters around the world were protesting against Israel before – this cannot be repeated enough – before Israel had even retaliated.

It was as if, the day after 9/11, people I thought of as friends had cheered for Osama bin Laden.

In the weeks after October 7, antisemitic hate crimes in London – such as attacks on Jewish schools and shops – exploded by 1350 per cent compared with the same period the year before; Islamophobic hate crimes also increased by 140 percent in that time – an appalling increase, but a tenth of what Jews were experiencing. In the United States, anti-Jewish attacks increased by 400 percent; in Germany, 240 percent; in France, almost 100 percent.

A protester smashes a door at the Columbia campus before police stormed the university

University campuses have been the sites of some of the most shocking, and the most visible, examples of antisemitic incidents since October 7. On American campuses, from autumn 2022 to autumn 2023 there was an increase of 700 per cent – “and last autumn was already our all-time high of reported antisemitic incidents”, Jonathan Falk, the vice-president of Israel Action and Addressing Anti-Semitism Program for Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organisation in the world, told me.

So now it’s seven times that. And it’s not just the increase but the directness and the severity of the attacks that scare me. It’s one thing to see a swastika on a bathroom stall door. But now we’re getting reports like a student coming back to their dorm after the break and someone stole their mezuzah and wrote “Free Palestine” on their door. That kind of directness is scary.

From October to December 2023, Hillel International recorded 683 antisemitic incidents on 132 North American campuses, ranging from vandalism to hate speech to physical assault. There were thirty-nine physical assaults of Jewish students from those campuses in those three months. That is more than in the entire previous decade.

In late October at the Cooper Union college in New York City, Jewish students were trapped in a locked library while other students banged on the windows and doors chanting “Free Palestine”. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst in early November, a Jewish student was punched in the face when he said he was attending a vigil for the Israeli hostages. At Berkeley, Jewish students were forced to hide in basements and tunnels while their fellow students banged on the doors and windows outside, shouting about genocide.

That same weekend, I happened to be visiting Harvard and multiple Jewish students there told me that their fellow students – “white kids who couldn’t identify Gaza on a map”, as one put it – had targeted them and accused them of genocide, not because they want to kill Palestinians, which they very much don’t, but because they believe in Israel’s right to exist. “And there’s no point in complaining about this to the administration, because they either agree with that, or they’re too scared to say anything,” another Jewish student told me. (Almost all the Jewish students I spoke to asked not to be identified out of fear they’d be further targeted.)

In December, the presidents of Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania testified at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses. In a much-watched exchange, they were questioned by Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik about, among other things, why Harvard allowed a Ukrainian flag to fly on campus but not an Israeli one; why the notorious Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters was invited to speak at a Penn literary festival; and why students on the campuses were allowed to chant in support for a global intifada. Stefanik asked if calling for “the genocide of Jews” – her widely shared interpretation of the call for intifada – was against the rules on their campuses. “It depends on the context,” they replied.

Shortly after their testimonies, Penn president Elizabeth Magill resigned. Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, resigned the following month in the wake of accusations of plagiarism. But the world had seen how life had deteriorated for Jewish students on campuses. “We have to remember that students look to the president of a university, and if they can’t say, ‘Antisemitism is wrong, it cannot be allowed,’ we’ll see more hate,” says Falk.

Many people on the left – as well as Gay herself – complained afterwards that the hearing had been “a well-laid trap” (one which Gay was very well paid to avoid, and failed). Moreover, because Stefanik is a Trump-supporting Republican, she was accused of “weaponising antisemitism” against America’s liberal higher education institutions. This is a standard tactic adopted by people who can’t deny the message, and so complain about the messenger. After all, you can’t “weaponise” antisemitism – a tedious zeitgeist term for “exploiting” antisemitism – if antisemitism isn’t there to be weaponised.

At Birmingham University, there was a march in February in which activists allegedly chanted “Death to Zionists!” and held up a banner proclaiming “Zionists off our campus!”

“No doubt right-wing people weaponise antisemitism, as the Tories did during the Corbyn years in the UK. But that did not mean Labour wasn’t antisemitic, and it was the same story with the congressional hearings,” says the writer David Baddiel.

But when people say things like, “Oh, this was just weaponising antisemitism,” I say, “Try to think of Jews as real human beings.” So when Elise Stefanik is weaponising antisemitism for her own Republican reasons, don’t think about her. Think about Jews listening to that video. Think about them listening to these people who are not prepared to condemn the genocide of Jews. Those are the people who matter in that conversation.

Jewish parents and students definitely heard it. “We are now hearing from parents asking if there will be armed security at Hillel Shabbat dinners and other Jewish events on campuses,” says Falk. “That is something we have never heard before. And we’re adding cameras and taking security measures that are totally new.”

This wasn’t limited to American college campuses. At Birmingham University in the UK, there was a march in February in which activists allegedly chanted “Death to Zionists!” and held up a banner proclaiming “Zionists off our campus!” That same month, “Free Palestine” was sprayed in graffiti on the campus’s Hillel House, and the Leeds University chaplain Rabbi Zaccharia Deutsch had to go into hiding after returning from Israel, where he’d been serving with his reserve unit. The Muslim Association of Britain posted a statement aimed at Leeds University, saying, “How can your students feel safe with a war criminal complicit in genocide roaming your campus?”

“This feels different,” is what we all keep saying. This feels different from all the previous international reactions to wars in the Middle East

In November 2023, Anthony Julius wrote in The Sunday Times about the local branch of the lecturers’ union at his university passing a motion calling for “intifada until victory” – a phrase that goes far beyond a plea for Palestinian statehood, and is instead an explicit threat against Israel and the Diaspora. “The university’s Jewish studies department notifies students of lecture venues by text, for fear of disruption,” he wrote. “Students at Jewish society lunches are protected by security guards. Jewish students stay on campus for only as long as they need to, and then leave. The general sentiment is, better to conceal all signs of their Jewishness.”

In January 2024, I asked Julius how the university had responded to his article. “That’s what really shocked me,” he replied. “I know the provost of my university read it, as did all the senior faculty, and not one of them spoke to me about it. None. Because they don’t care. If I was an academic from another minority community and I wrote about prejudice at UCL in such trenchant terms, do you think for one second that the university would ignore it? It seems unlikely.”

Is it because they think Jews are privileged, so it doesn’t matter?

“I think it’s an older trope than that: they think Jews are liars. After all, if there’s an allegation of racism, an institution like UCL would take it very seriously. But if there’s one of antisemitism, the reaction is, ‘Let’s appoint someone to see whether it’s really antisemitism or if the Jews are lying again.’” A Jewish student at a UK university put it to me like this: “When a student from a minority background complains about bigotry, we all need to do the work. When I complain about antisemitism, it’s another Jew trying to control things again.”

It is true that some Jews say that every criticism of Israel is antisemitic and claim to hear bigotry in the most innocuous statement – like Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in Annie Hall insisting that even a question about lunch was insulting. (“He didn’t say, ‘Did you eat?’ He said, ‘Jew, eat.’ Jew!”) But the inverse is rarely noted: in my experience, more Jews commit an enormous amount of emotional labour trying to convince themselves that the abuse they’re hearing is really just hatred of Israel rather than hatred of Jews. Because who wants to believe the latter? But after October 7, even the most fervent denialists among us saw it.

Many Jews I know stopped wearing their yarmulkes outside in case it made them a target. “This feels different,” is what we all keep saying. This feels different from all the previous international reactions to wars in the Middle East; this feels different to other brushes with antisemitism we’ve seen in the West in recent years, from the Jeremy Corbyn scandal in the UK to the murders in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018; this feels different to all the previous backlashes against Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. This – undeniably, overwhelmingly – feels different for all Jews.

Something has broken, or maybe it has become unmoored.

When I was a teenager in the 1990s, it seemed to me there was a collective understanding that the Holocaust had been the bonfire that showed the worst of humanity and therefore antisemitism was not a match to be trifled with.

The Muslim Association of Britain posted a statement aimed at Leeds University, saying, “How can your students feel safe with a war criminal complicit in genocide roaming your campus?”

Every writer I read – Martin Amis, Philip Roth, Sylvia Plath – reinforced this; every politician I saw on TV repeated it. But somewhere, in the past three decades, that understanding has dimmed. Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD, known outside Britain as Holocaust Remembrance Day) falls every year on January 27, the anniversary of when Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviets.

And yet HMD is no longer about the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust but “all victims of genocide”, and any Jew foolish enough to query this shift is firmly reprimanded for being exclusionary. (That was the real problem with the Holocaust: not inclusive enough.)

At the end of 2023, a historian friend of mine, who was writing a book about the concentration camps, was told solemnly by her editor that she had to make clear the Holocaust wasn’t just about the Jews: it was also about gay people, Romani, trans people. “The Nazis hated lots of people. But the Holocaust was specifically a genocide of the Jews,” my friend replied, anxious not to annoy her editor. “It was about a lot of people,” the editor said irritably, condescendingly and wrongly.

The industrial annihilation of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews is now just another blip in the annals of history, nothing extraordinary. And in fact, maybe it wasn’t about the Jews at all: increasingly they’re not even mentioned on Holocaust Memorial Day for – waves hands vaguely around – reasons. On January 27, the first HMD after October 7, the secretary-general of the UN and the Scottish first minister omitted any reference to the Jews at all when marking the day.

They succeeded where Hitler failed and erased Jews from their own history. Historical memory that had once been so vivid is fading and, with it, a truth that had been understood and agreed upon is slipping away.

• This article is based on extracts from Blindness: October 7 and the Left, by journalist and author Hadley Freeman, published by Jewish Quarterly which produces four long essays a year exploring Jewish culture and history. More information at: www.jewishquarterly.com

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