When I told people I was going to Israel in December, people acted like I was mad.‘Is it safe?’ Are your parents really allowing you to go?’ ‘But why now?’
Retrospectively, it was the best decision I made, and whilst I didn’t get the typical Israeli holiday, instead I was overwhelmed by the strength and unity of our people.
I was galvanised by the unbreakable spirit of Israelis, and on British campuses, we have a lot to learn.
My journey began when I visited Hostage Square, the plaza in Tel Aviv that is filled with installations for the hostages, most poignantly the empty Shabbat table.
I wandered into a white tent where Shelly and Malki Shemtov, the parents of the hostage Omer Shemtov were speaking to an American delegation. His mother explained how he has asthma and allergies, and she didn’t know how he could breathe without his inhaler. This was followed by an appeal by a woman from the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, more commonly known as the Bring Them Home Campaign, which was formed less than 24 hours after October the 7th.
She explained how the campaign has now amassed over 15,000 volunteers dedicated to ensuring the safe return of all the hostages as well as providing holistic medical and emotional support for family members affected by the atrocities.
Witnessing the unwavering strength of Omer’s parents and the remarkable work of the volunteer-led forum left a profound impact on me. It highlighted a significant gap between the proactive initiatives of Israeli civic society and the potential contributions of Jewish students in the UK.
Determined to bridge this divide, I visited the Bring Them Home headquarters the next day, eager to learn more about the forum and explore ways to involve Jewish students in the campaign.
The HQ was organised into different desks encompassing every possible angle of the campaign: international law, diplomacy, social media, journalism, global campaigns, fundraising, ‘Bring Them Home’ merchandise and more. It was like a military operation, a building bustling with people from all sectors of Israeli society who’ve dropped their day jobs to do everything within their power to help the hostages.
The key message I took from this is how in Israel, everyone is using their individual skill-set to help ensure the safe return of hostages. The well-intentioned paralysis of helplessness that I sensed in the UK was nowhere to be seen in Israel. So, I reflected; what is my role? What can I do to help?
We are all aware that young people may not share our views on Israel, and that this can very easily morph into antisemitism. This is particularly malignant on university campuses, with Jewish students unable to escape from the hostile atmosphere that infiltrates their lectures, student accommodation and social life.
In Leeds, where I am JSoc President, and across the UK, Jewish students have been subject to a litany of hate since October 7th, including verbal abuse, assault, and physical threats. Whilst we are incredibly lucky to be in a country where the main political figures understand the plight of Jews and Israelis, the leaders of tomorrow may not be as sympathetic.
This is where I feel Jewish students can step in. We are in the unique position to be able to shape the views and educate our peers, who will be the decision makers of the future. So, I decided that we needed to bring the #BringThemHome campaign to UK campuses, endeavouring to educate our non-Jewish peers as well as generate more solidarity and funds for the forum.
Partnered with UJS, I’m delighted to say that this campaign is now being rolled out with the support of my fellow JSoc Presidents and Jewish student leaders across the country.
Our campaign proudly follows in the footsteps of Jewish student activists before us, who campaigned relentlessly throughout the 1980s to free Soviet Jewry, and more recently stood up for the plight of the Uyghurs in China.
Our first event is a national challah bake happening on multiple different campuses on the 8th of February in the merit of the return of the hostages, as well as those who have been murdered. I’ve already been overwhelmed by how many Jewish students and JSocs want to be involved with this, and I can’t wait for this meaningful event.
I’m certain that this campaign would not have materialised had I not experienced first-hand the anguish of a mother yearning for her son, as well as the superhuman efforts to support each other.
We can learn so much from those in Israel, but what resonated most with me was how they channelled unimaginable grief to mobilising action.
I would encourage anyone reading this who has to the opportunity to go to Israel. It might not be your typical Tel Aviv holiday, but I assure you that you’ll come back with a renewed sense of strength and hope to face these challenging times.
- Emma Levy, President, Leeds University Jewish Society
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