The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) welcomed more than 100 guests to an in-person debate about students on campus with Countdown presenter Rachel Riley and journalist Hugo Rifkind.
The event at Hammerson House in north London saw UJS President Edward Isaacs alongside the two celebrities in a wide ranging discussion across politics, campus life, 7 October and media bias.
Isaacs told the assembled guests that 7 October had been a “turning point for Jewish students’ engagement”. Stating that there was always a correlating upswing in challenges for Jewish students on campus directly after any military action or war in Israel, he added: “I knew this would be different.”
Reflecting on her own experiences, Rachel Riley said: “I could have shut up but I didn’t want to be a bystander.” After 7 October, she said: “there wasn’t a choice this time” and that she was “stunned by the scale of media bias” in the UK following the Hamas atrocities.
Riley told Jewish News she felt that “Jewish students were on the sharp end of the rise in anti-semitism. That’s my biggest concern for young people.” She added that in speaking to young people on campus, much of the abuse they faced was from “their best friends, friends they grew up with since they were children. They’re not saying anything strong and they’re being cut off and blocked for being Jewish.”
Whilst joking that her “mum is Jewish but my dad is Man United”, she said it made her feel “genuinely sad” that some students considered hiding their Jewishness and it was up to the leadership at the universities to “show that is not acceptable. We’re in an age where we value difference. I want to be proudly Jewish because I think courage breeds courage.”
Hugo Rifkind said he felt the Jewish community “had been let down by the liberal left” and instead were left with support from far right elements. Referring to the challenges of social media, he said “it’s a genre I’ve defined as anti-semites anti-semitically explaining why it isn’t anti-semitic to be anti-semitic.”
Recalling his earlier journalistic experiences covering student politics, Rifkind said: “I was aware back then that in the pantheon of student-y, left-wing causes, which were anti-racism and anti-homophobia, there was already a fairly strong anti-Zionist element. And I remember thinking at the time, ‘that’s unfortunate, I hope that goes away’, not really dwelling on it.”
Despite students facing unprecedented antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment on campus, Isaacs said “we’ve seen immense resilience and glimmers of hope”. He added: “I hope we’ve reassured students that there is a place for them on campus.”
UJS chair of trustees Daniel Dangoor said the organisation embodies “the essence of what it is to be a proud, compassionate and exciting Jewish community” but for the past four months, “our student community has been rocked” and “felt the immense tension on campus with protests, calls for global intifada, glorification and support for the actions of Hamas and intimidation. They have witnessed, been the victims of, or read about the antisemitism that has swept across campus and in particular in the digital sphere.”
He added that to their immense credit, “Jewish students have not cowered in the shadows, they have not hidden away, they have not left university for the safety of home life en masse. What they have been doing is turning up in their droves to JSoc events, Friday night dinners, vigils, socials, talks and more. This is the Jewish students community I am so exceptionally proud to serve.”
UJS represents about 9,000 students and more than 70 Jewish societies across the UK and Ireland.
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