Skip to main content

As a young Jew at Cambridge, university is where I have felt most vulnerable (The Times)

One night at the student bar, when conversation bounced on to the dejecting subject of diversity at our university (ie the lack thereof), I decided to announce that, as a Jew, I’m “technically” BME. I can’t think why I did so — it must have been the narcissism — and when my best friends laughed I laughed with them. White, male, privately educated, from northwest London — lord, I even support Chelsea — how could I belong to any type of minority group, ethnic or otherwise?

At the time I thought they had a point. Despite my Georgian, Israeli, German, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian heritage (I swear there’s some Martian in there somewhere) and despite the fact that my mum came to the UK only 25 years ago as a refugee on religious grounds, I’m a Londoner through and through. The recent scandal highlighting antisemitism among extremists on the left and the right of British politics, however, leaves me feeling more vulnerable.

I’d never make a claim to represent all Jewish students more than I do to believing in God or going to synagogue. However, antisemitism seems not only to have reached another flashpoint in Europe — with the hate-fuelled attacks in Copenhagen, Brussels and persistently in France, as well as the demonising allegations and intimidation across the continent — but also on UK campuses.

In this academic year alone, they have had protesters climbing through windows to interrupt a Friends of Israel talk, swastikas drawn on cars, on walls and in halls, and anti-Jewish propaganda pinned to faculty noticeboards. The fact that there is such support at university for the radical left, with their pre-packed antisemitic tropes, cannot be ignored.

University is where I have felt most susceptible. This is a sort of second “mirror stage” at which students reevaluate ourselves and realise that our backgrounds have been as essential to our being as our bodies. I would not be at all surprised if the clustering of young Jews at so-called “Jewniversities” such as Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester and Oxbridge was partly down to a desire to escape a reality in which Jews are in danger of suddenly feeling that we don’t belong.

Back at Cambridge: for the first time in my life, most people I met in the first few weeks of studying here had never come across a Jew. We are less of a minority than at some universities but the assumptions made about me by some of the brightest young people in the world have started to sting. At first, the jibes about Jews being “stingy” just took me straight back to the playground; in retrospect, the perception that Jews are “everywhere in Cambridge”, when we make up less than 10 per cent of the population, sounds like a suggestion of a conspiracy; and the default view that I am religious could have struck an atheist Jew as offensive.

I was guilty of internalising these insults. How could I ever be a victim? Yet the reason these misconceptions cannot be palmed off as harmless mistakes is the same reason they are painful. The antisemitic language itself doesn’t keep me awake but, like many Jews I know, the thought of where it could all lead fills me with fear. The way Jews are perceived in the media is changing and it is scarily reminiscent of what our grandparents used to see slapped down in print.

This goes to show that, although a lot of us have privileges, Jewish people are not members of the white Christian hegemony that dominates Britain. We may not all look it but in the public spotlight or even in the eyes of people who know us Jews are still somehow “Other”. Failing to recognise this reality, when in the past it has been used to persecute us, would be running the serious risk of a repeat.

To me, this proves that, while acknowledging the privileges we have, it is vital that Jews feel free to figure among non-white minority ethnic groups and benefit from the strength and solidarity they provide. University groups have the potential to inspire vast improvements, and I have been amazed by the unifying force of my student union’s BME campaign, who offer support for students in the face of institutional racism and a lack of proper representation, no doubt on top of more challenges I have fortunately not had to confront personally.

I think we can agree that “BME” is a huge umbrella, and all sensible people will appreciate the variation in experience that already exists within this group. I sincerely hope that including Jews will not lessen the cause of other minority communities. Instead, placing our narrative alongside other victims of hate and marginalisation could shed further light on the ongoing struggle for society to tolerate difference and help to highlight that racism is not only skin-deep.

Published by The Times (£).


Popular posts from this blog

Language learning needs to be protected from becoming a casualty of coronavirus (The i)

When learning a new language, you begin with the words you would normally need every day: words for meeting people, going to cafés and restaurants, asking for the way to the station. Now – in a world where a summer holiday, let alone living abroad, feels like a fading possibility – that rule seems ironic. While terms like self-isolation and social distancing have become basic vocabulary in English, those classic foreign phrases have evoked a strange sort of wanderlust, tainted by a festering frustration. With millions of pupils now staying at home until September at the earliest – language degrees and lessons could be among the most disrupted – and foreign travel affected for the foreseeable future, it is vital our ability to talk to the world does not turn into another casualty of coronavirus. Languages, at their heart, are about people communicating freely with each other, so as school and university subjects, they rely on a level of social proximity that is currently not possi