Jewish students in Leeds facing 'hostile environment' at universities amid Israeli-Palestinian conflict - society president says
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Some young members have also told leaders in the society – which covers the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University, and the Leeds Arts University – that they have been afraid to wear religious necklaces on campus.
And despite the UK being more than 2,000 miles away, a debate over the disputed region of Gaza has dominated headlines for almost three weeks.
Both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrations have taken place in cities across Britain, while fiery debates about the historic clash are making some, with connections to the region, feel uncomfortable.
Joel Herman, 20, is the President of the Leeds Jewish Society and a StandWithUs fellow.
Like any other campus society, it organises social events for likeminded students including monthly dinners, educational events, and even its own netball team.
As the conflict in the Middle East has escalated, the society – and Joel’s role within it – have taken on extra significance, he said.
Students have been turning to him with reports of antisemitism, which he said began on social media. In the aftermath of the attack on Israel, he noticed misinformation being shared online.
“When we confront these people that we considered friends, it has led to terrible direct message conversations and blatant antisemitism,” he said.
“There is a really hostile environment on campus. There have been a few accounts in actual lectures where people have experienced antisemitism and either the lecturers have laughed or refrained from making any comment or taking action.”
Joel added: “A lot of people are now scared to wear their skullcaps out, people are scared to wear their Star of David necklaces, people are even scared to go to a Friday night dinner.
“I know people that have felt too uncomfortable to go to lectures, campus, or even use the libraries because they just want to be at home.”
While Joel acknowledged that campus security has been ramped up for events, he said that a vigil held on campus last week could not be advertised on social media for safety reasons.
This week, all three universities in the city issued statements affirming their commitment to support those affected by the events unfolding in the Middle East and insisted that any form of discrimination would not be tolerated.
Joel, originally from North West London, said there has been solidarity from leaders, including positive meetings held with the University of Leeds’ Deputy Vice-Chancellor who attended a recent social organised by the students.
Other leaders in the city have weighed in on the situation, including Imam Qari Asim of the Leeds Makkah Mosque. He organised a statement signed by members of a national advisory board calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
It said: “We denounced Hamas’ killing and abduction of innocent people on October 7, as well as the Israeli military’s subsequent use of force. We urge the government of Israel to act with restraint and within the boundaries of international law.”
The statement also condemned recent incidents of antisemitism and islamophobia.
It comes after a statement issued by the city’s local Labour group last week said anti-Semitism and Islamophobia incidents have risen in Leeds since atrocities in the Middle East began.
The statement, issued on behalf of the party’s 61 city councillors, said they were “gravely concerned” by an “increased” number of hate incidents against the city’s Muslim and Jewish populations.
Joel said that the recent conflict has brought into focus the strong connection that Jewish people around the world have to Israel.
“Almost every single Jewish person I have spoken to on campus has been affected,” he said.
One of his friends was killed in the conflict. He said: “I went on Israel tour with him in the summer after GCSEs. So many boys and girls on campus would have known him. He was a really popular guy. It has been a really hard time. It still hasn’t sunk in because of how fast everything has happened. It is almost impossible to believe.”
Joel also has a cousin serving in the country’s military.
“When the war broke out, we had next to no contact with him,” he said. “I managed to get a very emotional 30-second phone call. Since then, we’ve had a brief FaceTime call and it was amazing to see him in good spirits – because, in such uncertainty, you think the worst.”
For the young student, running the society has been more challenging than ever.
“It has taken a toll on me. It has been very difficult and all-consuming. All the roles I’ve had have been multiplied by 10. But at the same time, I’m so passionate about advocacy on campus. As much as it’s a taxing role, I’m appreciative of the position I find myself in.”
In a statement, the University of Leeds described the situation in Israel and Gaza as “deeply concerning”, and said it would support staff and students who are affected, while information about counselling and wellbeing services was offered.
A spokesperson added: “Now more than ever, it is essential to emphasise that antisemitism and all forms of hatred have no place at the University of Leeds.
“As a community, it is important that we stand together and support each other, and our communications remind all students that racism, bullying or harassment are never acceptable.”
They added that security teams are working with partners to ensure Jewish students and the community feels safe, and that incidents should be reported.
A spokesperson for Leeds Beckett University said that every student and staff member has been told that “any form of racism, antisemitism, islamophobia, abuse or harassment will not be tolerated” and that the institution is offering support to those affected.
And a Leeds Arts University spokesperson also said that affected students have been contacted, and that any form of discrimination would not be tolerated and should be reported. They said that no incidents have yet been flagged.