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Why always me?

By a Jewish student member of UJS at NUS National Conference

Yesterday evening I attended the UJS fringe event with Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. He discussed at length the importance of equality on university campus. He emphasised that students from all races and religions must listen to those they disagree with in order to truly challenge one’s own views. Dialogue and educational debate not only increases awareness among different students but tests beliefs and ensures we live in a fair, equal and just society.

My first day at NUS Conference 2012 was great. The Chief’s speech left me with a strong sense of pride in being Jewish.  The Chief Rabbi’s inspirational words and core liberal values gave me reassurances that Anglo-Jewry is in good hands.

Two hours later, I sadly found out that the Union of Jewish Students’ (UJS) stall at the NUS Conference Centre had been vandalised. A series of ‘Boycott Israel’ stickers defaced the entire stall, including several stuck directly over the Star of David. This shocked and saddened me. Having left Lord Sack’s speech with messages of hope and multiculturalism echoing in my ears, I was quickly reminded of the reality often facing Jewish students in the UK and beyond.

Many of you may think I am overreacting. If I tell you the story of Chanan Reitblat you may change your mind…

Chanan recently came to study at the University of St Andrews (my current place of study) as an exchange student from Yeshiva University, New York. Chanan and I immediately clicked. We became close friends over the course of his stay after realising we had many mutual interests, namely a passion for Israeli politics and the future of the Jewish State.

Later that year, Chanan went through a horrible experience that ultimately shaped the rest of his studies at St Andrews and his perception of Scottish-Jewish relations. One evening, two students burst in Chanan’s room. They immediately ripped down an Israel flag from Chanan’s wall before defacing it and other pieces of his property using certain parts of their male genitalia. Upon leaving his room, Chanan was then further harassed and accused of being a ‘dirty Zionist’ and a ‘terrorist’ given his support to the State of Israel. Chanan immediately filed a police report and was given justice several months later after the two students involved in the case were found guilty of hate crime, ultimately affecting the rest of their life.

It must be noted that the two defendants pleaded their innocence.  They demanded their actions were politically motivated and they were merely expressing their views ‘in a suitable and fashionable manner’. Rubbing your penis on a fellow student’s Israeli flag before going on to accuse them of being a ‘dirty Zionist’ and ‘terrorist’ is, to me, difficult by any means to justify as a political statement. Rather, it is an attack upon a person given their political and religious beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the courts overruled any appeal and neither student involved currently studies at the University of St Andrews.

Similarly, the attack on the UJS stand is likely to be deemed a political action by some at this year’s conference in Sheffield. To those of you reading this and thinking such a point, I put these points to you: UJS’ stand simply offered literature on Jewish life in the UK and other Jewish-UK-student related books. This attack was therefore specifically aimed at UJS’ stand because of its affiliation with Jews and can plainly be defined as antisemitism. If this was a legitimate political action, those involved would surely aim their efforts towards all those who ‘support the Zionist cause’, whether that be Labour students or groups of Organised Independents.

The phrase made famous by Manchester City football player Mario Balotelli rings true: why always me? Have Jewish students done something wrong to deserve such treatment on campus? Is Lord Sacks wrong for encouraging free and open debate on university campus in order to broaden peoples mind and ensure dialogue takes place between those from different political and religious backgrounds? Or is he wrong? Do Jewish students deserve such treatment? Is it justifiable to attack the UJS stand, and in particular the Star of David, a highly resonant symbol of Jewish identity, with stickers supporting a divisive tactic such as BDS? Am I, as a Jewish student, merely overreacting and overhyping such acts? Should I therefore not feel threatened by the sneaky and disgusting individuals who carried out this attack? Or is this a further example of anti-Semitism within the UK student movement? Were Jews particularly singled out in this attack because of their affiliation with Israel? I’ll let you decide…

What saddens me the most, however, is the refusal by certain students to engage in any forms of dialogue. University and educational events are a place to meet new people and challenge your ideas, rather than a place to hide away and engage in dirty and insulting tactics to prove your point. It is shameful that such students exist and students across the country are given a horrible name by such acts. Lord Sacks encouraged dialogue and debate and I can only hope that more students take his advice and stay away from simple acts of stupidity and ignorance as we saw yesterday evening in Sheffield.