When I woke in my student house on Saturday 7 October, my stomach turned at the news from Israel. As fellow Jewish students and I checked on our loved ones there, one replied on WhatsApp: “Do not go to synagogue today.” In their moment of terror they knew that here, in the UK, antisemitism would erupt; racism would jeopardise our safety.
There have been more reported incidents of antisemitism on British university campuses in a month than there were in all of 2022. At Oxford University, where I am an undergraduate, acts of hatred, misinformation and a lack of empathy when we are vulnerable have turned student spaces into places of hostility.
Our Jewish Society president had the mezuzah (a protective Jewish prayer scroll) ripped from his door. At a freshers’ event, one Jewish friend told me that she was called a “coloniser” and “race traitor” (the latter by virtue of her non-European descent). I know male students who have removed their kippot (skullcaps) and others who have hidden their Stars of David. On Instagram, I saw students posting pictures of paragliders, celebrating Hamas’s massacre. I waited five long days for my university to condemn “appalling attacks by Hamas” and stress “that there is no place for antisemitism or hate of any faith at Oxford”. An Israeli student whose relatives were murdered at the Nova festival has returned home, telling me she felt safer there than on campus.
In the days after 7 October, I walked Oxford’s streets, my home away from home, overwhelmed with grief and despair for victims of Hamas’s premeditated massacre, rape and torture, as well as fear for the hostages held in Gaza and my loved ones. As images emerged of destruction and death in Gaza, I felt crushed and distraught at the devastation.
While I was concerned with the plight of civilians, I encountered protests and chants: “From Oxford to Gaza / Long live the intifada” – words that sustain the violence and too often lead to violence against Jews in the UK, not just in Israel.
As I struggled to work, I wrote to my tutors, explaining my distress. They replied privately, expressing sympathy. But as I appeared at tutorials and seminars, sleepless and broken, I did not feel safe to raise my most pressing thoughts in public. A climate in which we feel fearful to address what we’re going through leaves space for others to dehumanise us and contribute to environments in which antisemitism is allowed to fester.
The silence we encounter stands in stark contrast to the sensitivity and outspoken support displayed by staff and students to those touched by other events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Beyond Oxford, Jewish students have experienced similar incidents of antisemitism. In Manchester, posters with the words “kill more Jews” and “Yids” have been displayed. On Instagram, a university Jewish society was sent the message: “Wherever you are in the world, we will take you out of your homes and perform a dance of victory and happiness over your bodies”; another was sent a threat, accompanied by a video of beheaded babies, reading: “You must be killed all of u till the last naziest of you” [sic]; a university rabbi received a direct message that said: “You massacred innocent Muslims, I hope you die too.”
At some universities, numbers at campus Friday-night dinners, celebrating the Sabbath, have decreased; students feel safer returning home for the weekend. In Oxford, though, I have seen numbers increase: when faced with hostility and a void of empathy, we seek belonging from each other. We’ve established a WhatsApp group of Jewish students, warning if we encounter protests that risk escalating from calls for Palestinian liberation to those that sound to us like a call for Jewish pain.
Perhaps the hardest part is that I’ve always seen myself, politically, on the left. I’m a fervent believer in a two-state solution; I consider the West Bank occupation a source of many great evils, and am outraged by Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. Being a student has painfully shown that those views and feelings make no difference to some otherwise educated, empathic peers.
When I applied to university, I never thought I would have to hide my Jewishness, chillingly echoing how my great-grandparents erased their Jewish identities in the 1930s after fleeing from Greece to Turkey. University societies do not announce Jewish events publicly; we have increased security on our doors. Safety concerns are also why I have remained anonymous in this piece, and why there are places where demonstrations gather three times a week that I avoid altogether.
When I see faces I know call “From the river to the sea” or students sign off emails with the same chant, the phrase feels like something that goes far beyond a demand for freedom: a call to get rid of Israel and a dog-whistle for getting rid of Jews. When someone shouts “Free Palestine” at a Jew walking around Oxford wearing his kippah, as happened to a friend of mine, they are weaponising that idea against him. In these moments, where anti-Zionism implies, even indirectly, an outcome that entails violence against Jews, it shelters antisemitism; universities must seek to understand why it is so ferocious in academic settings. They also must address why here, of all places, misinformation is disseminated so readily.
The psychological toll is huge: I do not sleep well and cry often. There are friends and tutors who have acknowledged my pain and their empathy has overwhelmed me. When a friend messaged offering to take notes if I felt unable to attend lectures, my eyes filled with tears. So I know it is possible for people to react differently, to not be led by preconceived notions about this conflict that harbour racism or a binary idea of who is good or bad. I urge fellow students, instead, to see us as just that – fellow citizens whose distress and pain must be taken at face value and countered with kindness, compassion and conversation in which no party experiences fear.
The author is a student at Oxford University
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