Sermon: Shabbat Yitro – “Support small J-Socs at Britain’s Universities”

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 February 2017

Rabbis’ working days are often very long made up of many different experiences and tasks, pastoral, teaching, organisational, ritual, study and lots and lots of emails and phone calls and visits.  But occasionally you get to do one great thing and for me Wednesday was one of those blessed days.  My day started at 6 as I left the house to go to Waterloo Station then to catch a train for Exeter.  I got back from there by 7:30 that night with a changed perspective on the Jewish experience in Britain.

The purpose of the trip was simple, to go to Exeter University Jewish Society and give a talk to the students there.

Exeter University is not exactly a magnet for Jewish students.  There are thought to be around 30 Jewish students among the 22,000 enrolled at the University, meaning that the proportion of Jewish students on campus is less than a third of that of the British population as a whole.

Of these Jews around 15 belong to the J-Soc and attend their events and pretty much all of them came to the talk – which was on my favourite topic Judaism and Business Ethics.  It was organised by Alex Tansey at Jeneration, the Movement for Reform Judaism’s student support wing.

My talk was, for many of these students, a first introduction to studying Talmud and classical Jewish texts.  Exeter Jewish students are not drawn from the most observant strata of British Jewry.  Indeed, something about being in Exeter and part of such a small Jewish cohort has encouraged those who are part of the J-Soc to feel that they need to build their Jewish identity.

You could see that the essential shared ingredient of Jewish life, Jewish food was a major part of the J-Soc meeting – we scoffed bagels, from Exeter Tesco there of course being no Jewish bakery in Exeter, cream cheese and smoked salmon while we learned and of course the event was ridiculously over catered for the numbers.  This meant that many of the students got to take bagels back to their bemused student flatmates.  Most of the J-Soc members shared with me that their experience in their flats was that most of those they lived with had never met a Jew until they came to university and met them.

The UK Union of Jewish Students (UJS) counts 8500 Jewish students at Universities today.  Going to University is not of course the experience of all Jewish 18-21 year olds but it is that of the majority.  These Jewish students are remarkably concentrated.

The Institute of Jewish Policy Research surveyed Jewish students in 2011 and found that half their sample attended just eight out of the 113 universities in the UK.  These eight are Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, Cambridge, UCL, Oxford and Kings College London.  A report last year (Alex Davis, 7/3/16) in the Daily Telegraph based on Union of Jewish Students statistics suggests that the concentration has become even thicker, that now 61% of Jewish students attend just six universities, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Oxford and Cambridge.  These six are referred to either disparagingly or lovingly, depending on your perspective, as the Jewniversities.

I can see how being at a University where the concentration of Jews brings an active Jewish life, ease of associating with a local Synagogue if you want to, easy accessibility of Kosher food if you are observant and easy contact with a Jewish social life is very attractive, especially to the now 65% of Jewish young people who attended a Jewish day school.   But the choice to study outside of this concentration and retain and build your Jewish identity must be supported and facilitated.

UJS counts 64 Jewish Societies as its constituents – from Brighton to Cardiff, from Aberdeen to York.  Their numbers of members range from Leeds University’s J-Soc’s 1200 members to tiny societies with 3 or 4 Jews coming together for a Shabbat dinner and little more.  Many of the smaller J-Socs with 10-30 members like Exeter’s, and Durham which I visited last year, put on a great range of activities, from Friday night meals and speaker workshops, to residential, Hebrew lessons, Purim balls.  In the words of one Brighton student who is part of their J-Soc “I came to Brighton thinking that I was getting away from the Jewish bubble I grew up in. After a few months I really missed chicken soup and having a common cultural ground with the people I meet. I tried one event and I realised I was home. I have loads of friends on my course and in my halls, but J-Soc is my uni family.” (Source: UJS Website) My daughter Alice is in Brighton at Sussex University, those aren’t her words but they do reflect her feelings.

There is another critical function that the small J-Socs do and this has to be recognised by the wider Jewish community.  Small J-Socs are in the vanguard of struggling against anti-Zionism based on false information and especially of anti-Zionism turning carelessly into anti-Semitism.  And this was the dark side of my visit to Exeter University this week.

In ten days’ time Exeter University begins to celebrate something which a number of university Student Unions call ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’.  Its premise is false; that Israel is an Apartheid state using the old South African model.  Its intention is pernicious, to demonise Israel and make contact with the Jewish State unacceptable for the student who considers themselves upstanding in their ethics.  Its effect is destructive and threatening, making Jewish students feel discriminated against and reviled unless they repudiate Israel.

So before and after my talk the Jewish students of Exeter spent time together working out how they would deal with the Israeli Apartheid Week and its publicity.  They were doing what is required in our Torah portion today, setting borders around something dangerous and potentially very hurtful.  In the portion Yitro it is Mount Sinai burning and smoking as it is readied to become the positive place of God’s revelation. in Exeter University it is the student body, led on campus by the Palestinian Society making students feel that Israel is an evil country, and though careless use of language and imagery, that Jews are part of that evil.

The Exeter J-Soc has dealt with this is in a measured and positive way, I was proud to be with them as they planned and deliberated.   Last week a swastika was found scratched into a door on the campus.  The J-Soc Chair, the impressive Dan Mazur, went to the university authorities and asked them to condemn this anti-Semitic act.  The University authorities told him that they did not have a policy on Anti-Semitism and so could not act.

With support from the Union of Jewish Students, he directed them to the UK Government definition of Anti-Semitism ( and now the University has agreed to adopt this and to act.  The government definition includes this example of anti-Semitism with regard to the State of Israel. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour or drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

Now so armed the J-Soc was ready to challenge the publicity for Israel Apartheid week.  The posters around campus show Israelis as blacked out figures baring their teeth and holding guns.  It included the words “100 years of settler-colonialism” as the justification for the week, presumably referring to the Balfour Declaration supporting the Jewish right to a homeland promulgated in Britain in 1917.  The Israel Apartheid Week publicity pictured people throwing stones as an example of the fair reaction to the Israeli figures.  The Exeter J-Soc wrote to the Exeter Uni Friends of Palestine society to protest and received a response asking them to specify their concerns.  This they did like so:

  1. The description ‘100 Years of Settler-Colonialism’ completely disregards the Jewish presence and deeply-rooted history in the land prior to 1948. Additionally, it equates colonialism to the right of Jewish self-determination which is recognised as a form of anti-Semitism by the British Government and the EU.
  2. The drawings of the Israeli soldiers show distinct stereotypical features that are attributed to Jewish people and could easily be found in Nazi journals such as ‘Der Stürmer’  This is also widely understood as being anti-Semitic by the British Government and the EU.
  3. The depiction of individuals hurling stones and holding guns is perceived as an encouragement and incitement to violence against Israelis (and because of the stereotypical image mentioned above)- by extension, Jews which again, is deeply anti-Semitic and condemnable as such by both the British Government and the EU.

They made a statement to the general University student body saying this:  We strongly encourage the University to join us in our campaign of tackling anti-Semitism by welcoming and promoting Jewish culture on campus. This year alone, we have tripled in size and expanded our activities to make Jewish life at Exeter prosper further. We do not want the ignorance of a few to shape our experience at this university, nor negatively reflect upon the University.

The so-called “Israeli Apartheid Week” will no doubt go ahead at Exeter University and many other British and foreign universities in the near future.  The courage and determination of the Exeter J-Soc and other small J-Socs around the country will hopefully reduce its anti-Semitic impact and cast doubt on its basic false premise.  It is a tough thing for a few Jews among tens of thousands of other students to take on, and remember that these are often Jews who have not been part of Jewish activism before.

I am proud that Reform Judaism’s Jeneration, run by Alex Tansey and Gavi Morris will not give up on small J-Socs, will not say that all their resources should be directed to a few Jewniverisities.  A critical value of Reform Judaism is that you can be fully Jewish wherever you choose to live.   We must support our students in having a good experience of being a Jew wherever they choose to study.