Whether it’s Holocaust denial leaflets posted around campuses, fascist stickers on buildings or swastika graffiti in halls of residence, anti-Semitism at UK universities is a problem which refuses to disappear.
According to the Guardian, there was a spate of such incidents in February 2017, including a swastika and a ‘Rights for Whites’ sign which were found in halls of residence at Exeter University. Similar incidents involving anti-semitism have also been recently reported at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Sussex and University College London.
The widespread nature of these incidents has led the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) to suggest that there may have been some level of coordination behind them. Many commentators seeing this rise in anti-Semitism as part of a wider increase in hate crime against Jews and other minority groups. Moving outside of university campuses and into society as a whole, there was a reported 50% increase in hate crimes against minority groups in the months following following the EU referendum last June. But why does anti-Semitism in particular seem to be so widespread at UK universities? It is notable that, unlike other types of prejudice, accusations of anti-Semitism are levelled against the political left, as well as the ‘alt-right.’
The issue of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a divisive one among students from all political backgrounds, and, in my view, it is students’ different standpoints on this conflict which often leads to these accusations being made. Notably, the incoming National Union of Students (NUS) president Malia Bouattia has been accused of anti-Semitism for comments she has made in the past, with a recent report from the BBC claiming that student unions may disaffiliate from the NUS as a result of Bouattia’s presidency.
In 2011, Bouattia co-authored an article in which she described the University of Birmingham ‘something of a Zionist outpost’ and has faced increasing opposition for her alleged links to the controversial group Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK) which was banned from university campuses in 2004 by the NUS for anti-Semitic propaganda. However, Boutattia highlighted in an open letter in response to the criticism levied against her in a letter signed by 56 university Jewish society presidents, that the distinction between being anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist needs to be made. She wrote: ‘I want to be clear that for me to take issue with Zionist politics, is not me taking issue with being Jewish. In fact, Zionist politics are held by people from a variety of different backgrounds and faiths as are anti-Zionist politics.’ However, this distinction does not always seem to hold up in other cases of anti-Semitism reported at university. According to the Huffington Post, in March 2011, at an event at SOAS University of London, an anti-Israel activist allegedly told pro-Israel activists that: ‘The best thing the Jews have ever done was go into the gas chamber. It was the best thing to happen to Germany to have been cleaned of Jews. The same thing needs to happen in the Middle East.’
Oxford University’s Labour Club was also accused of bigoted behaviour in 2016. According to the Huffington Post, the society’s former co-chair, Alex Chalmers, resigned from his position based on his concerns that the club has a ‘problem with Jews’ as members would casually use the word ‘Zio’ – which is ‘usually confined to the websites of neo-Nazis’, according to Chalmers.
A report by Students Rights, an anti-extremism group, documented more than 30 cases of anti-Semitism on university campuses since 2011. Furthermore, it describes the problems caused by student society social media pages which are ‘ungoverned areas where antisemitic abuse and conspiracies are freely shared.’ For example, the report cites a post on the King’s College London Palestinian society Facebook page which claimed that British politicians are on “the Jewish payroll”. In addition, the University of Westminster Palestine Solidarity Campaign posted stating that “the Zionist Israelis…are totally akin” to the Nazis and “I believe Zionist Israel is actually worse than the Nazis”. The report argues that, ‘The blurring of the boundaries between pro-Palestine activism and antisemitism inherent in many of these posts, and the claims made by students of a culture in which Jewish students who raise concerns are accused of ‘crying wolf’ is deeply concerning.’ It concluded that, ‘until this changes, and universities take disciplinary action against those students and societies involved, we will continue to see antisemitism on our campuses.’