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November 9, 2023   5 mins

In my first year at university, in 2005, I vividly recall coming across a Guardian article by Luciana Berger headlined “Why I had to resign”. This was 14 years before she quit the “institutionally antisemitic” Labour Party; back then, she was merely a rising star on the NUS’s National Executive Committee.

In the article, she described being “spat at for being Jewish” at her first NUS conference, and referenced a speaker at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies saying “that burning down a synagogue is a rational act”. I naively assumed the piece had been published years earlier; there was surely no way this sort of bigotry and threat could be contemporary. Almost two decades later, a new generation of Jewish students is experiencing a similarly rude awakening.

Last month, a couple of weeks after Hamas carried out its attack on Israel, a flat inhabited by Jewish freshers at Nottingham Trent University was trashed and a note was left stating: “FREE PALESTINE. KYS TORY CUNTS.” (The KYS is internet slang for “kill yourself”.) Its authors were so confident in the righteousness of their cause that they even wrote their flat numbers in the corner of the A4 sheet, complete with two love hearts.

According to the mother of one of the Jewish students, the attack was the result of her daughter’s flatmate having an Israeli flag in their kitchen. “They trashed their room, tore down their lights and took the flag,” the mother tells me, before adding that her daughter later expressed relief that she doesn’t look Jewish. “I get it — she just wants to be a kid and get on with uni life. But this is what’s happening. They’re scared. They don’t want anyone to know they’re Jewish.” Indeed, every student interviewed for this article, bar one, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

One does not have to look far to understand why. In the month since October 7, the Community Security Trust recorded 73 antisemitic incidents related to universities across the UK — compared with 17 in the first six months of 2023 and 56 in the whole of last year.

Yet the recent attacks on Jewish students are as striking for their ferocity as their sheer volume. In Bristol, a Jewish student was told: “You and your family are money grabbing cunts murdering Muslim people.” Another in Birmingham received an Instagram message from a stranger, warning: “May a slow and painful death be granted to you and every other Zionist like you.” A university rabbi also received a direct message on the platform: “You massacred innocent Muslims — I hope you die too.” In Warwick, a Jewish students’ WhatsApp group was infiltrated by at least three different people bombarding freshers with messages — shown to me — including “FUCKING DIRTY JEWISH CUNTS”, “ISREAL [sic] GOT NO HUMANITY FUCKIN CUNNTS [sic]”, “MUDWRING [sic] BASTARDS” and “FREE PALASTINE [sic]”.

Emma*, a third-year student at the University of Edinburgh, felt she was at-risk as soon as the terrorist attack took place. “I took off anything that suggests I’m Jewish and stopped going to a lot of JSoc [Jewish Society] events to avoid antisemitism,” she tells me. She describes how a friend offered to wear her Star of David necklace to prove that she would be safe doing so. “The first day he wore it, someone did a ‘Heil Hitler’ at him.” The friend gave up after a few hours.

If the initial concerns of Jewish students — busily covering their skullcaps and Jewish-themed tattoos — were brushed off, it soon became clear that, if anything, they had underestimated the anti-Israeli atmosphere on campuses. Almost immediately post-7/10, the abuse levied at them became institutionalised, as university groups lined up to call for more “resistance”. At SOAS, for instance, before Israelis had even finished collecting the bodies of the slain, the Palestine Society promoted the right to resist “by any means necessary”. A day later, student group Warwick Action for Palestine praised “the response of the colonised” and said it stood in solidarity with “the martyrs and the resistance”. Over at the University of East Anglia, meanwhile, the Islamic Society did not celebrate the horrors, but denied they ever took place: “This never happened. Hamas never ‘decapitated babies’”, and plastered a red FALSE stamp over reports of the atrocities published in The Times of Israel and The Independent.

Nor was this simply a student phenomenon. Last month, the University College London branch of the national University and College Union, which represents academics and teaching staff, voted for a motion calling for “intifada until victory!”. Predictably, while it went to great pains to emphasise the “British government’s support for the Israeli state”, there was little mention of the fact that the last intifada saw Israeli civilians being blown up by suicide bombers on buses and at restaurants.

Similar proposals have been tabled at Oxford and Cambridge universities, though the most egregious hotspots appear to be further north. At the University of Leicester, posters have been put up describing “heroes fighting for justice and their right to exist”. Meanwhile, the committee members of the JSoc have had to take down their names and photos from the student union website due to safety fears. And at the University of Manchester, a Socialist Worker “Victory to the Resistance” poster on a bus stop was graffitied with “KILL MORE JEWS”, while the local branch of the Socialist Workers Party created a poster headlined “Support Palestinian Resistance” with an image of a bulldozer used by the October 7 terrorists to break into southern Israel. Another shows a man brandishing two rockets and calls “for mass revolution across the Arab world”.

They’re “everywhere on campus”, says Jewish postgraduate Daniel. “I shouldn’t have to hide my Star of David in the street,” he adds. “I shouldn’t have to think about what routes to take to get to different classes safely. I shouldn’t have to walk past angry protesters calling for the eradication of the only Jewish state. If I had known how unsafe Manchester would feel as a Jewish student, I wouldn’t have chosen to study here. It’s just absolutely incessant.”

Daniel references the physical attacks — primary schools in London’s Stamford Hill being daubed with red paint and a Jewish man at a pro-Palestine protest in Los Angeles dying after reportedly being struck on the head with a megaphone. “It’s not just rhetoric,” he says. “There is a palpable fear that these slogans and chants will eventually lead to Jewish students being singled out and attacked. We’ve seen it in history. It’s how it starts, with these catchwords and slogans, and that eventually transcends into violence.” 

Jew-hatred on campus is, of course, nothing new. Last year, the National Union of Students sacked its president, Shaima Dallali, following an inquiry into allegations of historic antisemitism. In 2012, she tweeted: “Khaybar Khaybar O Jews… Muhammad’s army will return Gaza” — referencing a 7th-century massacre of Jews and echoing a chant that has been heard repeatedly on the streets of London in recent weeks. She had also described a cleric critical of Hamas as a “dirty Zionist”. In this she was echoing one of her predecessors, Malia Bouattia, who the year before labelled Birmingham University a “Zionist outpost”.

The tragedy is that, since then, and since I was at university, student discourse on Israel has largely been stripped of any remaining sliver of nuance — leaving only the starkest of bone-headed binaries. It puts all pro-Palestinians, however violent or bigoted, on the side of the angels and, by extension, leaves the vast majority of Jews, who quietly support the existence of a Jewish homeland in Israel, on the side of every evil, from racism and colonialism to Nazism and apartheid.

But if chanting mobs can be whipped up into such blinding fervour that they find themselves unable to distinguish between rape and resistance, how can we expect them to differentiate British Jews and a government 2,000 miles away? Jewish students certainly will not feel remotely safe until they can. The late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks stated: “The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.” He could equally have said: “What starts on university campuses never ends on university campuses.”


* Some names have been changed.

Etan Smallman is a freelance journalist.