LONDON — In late September and early October every year, hundreds of thousands of new and returning students journey from their family homes to university campuses across Britain. This includes over 8,500 Jewish students who, in the addition to the usual pressures associated with resuming university life, are having to consider what this summer’s record spike in anti-Semitic incidences will mean for them in the coming year.
At JW3 in north-west London, The Times of Israel spoke with Ella Rose, president of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), the peer-led body which represents British Jewish students and is a confederation of 64 Jewish societies (JSocs) from across Britain’s universities. As president, Rose is responsible for representing the interests of students to the wider community as well as setting the strategic goals and objectives for the UJS during her one-year term.
During our interview, we discussed how the UJS has prepared for the new university year, as well as issues of anti-Semitism on campus and the place of Israel advocacy in the union’s work.
Tell us what you and the UJS have been doing in the past two weeks and what you’ve found.
This is my first day in the office in about two weeks! Last night, I slept on the floor of a freshers’ dorm in Bristol – which was awful.
We’ve been doing our campus visits, about forty visits in two weeks between the eight members of our program staff, going to all the different freshers’ fayres, freshers’ events. For example, yesterday I went to visit Bath JSoc for their freshers’ fayre and then over to Bristol for their freshers’ barbecue. We’ve been building relationships on campus, making sure they’re comfortable going onto campus, that they can sign people up and just being a friendly face and a helping hand.
Jewish students are getting on with their lives. At Bristol last night, there were around 150 people at the barbecue, which is fantastic. There was very little Jewish life there four or five years ago. Now, they’re one of the biggest JSocs in the country and that’s because people created a welcoming Jewish life, other people hear about it and they come along. I think there are about sixty kids from JFS [a Jewish secondary school in north London] at Bristol now. It’s brilliant.
Given the summer we’ve had in terms of heightened anti-Semitism in the UK, what has the UJS been doing in preparation for the start of the new university year?
We were worried. There’s rising anti-Semitism and campus is a microcosm, so what you see in our communities is often reflected on campus. But, we’ve had really strong and positive start to term. As far as I am aware, we’ve not had any incidences where people have felt uncomfortable because they’re Jewish.
‘There’s rising anti-Semitism and campus is a microcosm’
We had a leadership and political training summit at the beginning of September and we talked about these issues and we said, ‘This might be an issue, this is what you should do, this is what you should think about preparing for campus.’
We started a campaign called #keepitkosher, with the tagline ‘Snap It, Send It, Stop It’, and it’s about stopping online anti-Semitism because that’s where some of the students would feel it more strongly, and we work with the CST [on that]. It’s about creating a safe space for Jewish students and students feeling that there is someone there to support them.
But I went to Nottingham, I never experienced anti-Semitism when I was there and I’m pretty sure everyone knew I was Jewish because it’s not something I keep quiet about.
I believe it’s an incredible time to be a Jewish student and I don’t believe that will change this year.
What are your plans for the coming year concerning Israel advocacy and creating safe spaces on campus to discuss Israel?
On Israel, we are unified but not uniform. We are a union of Jewish students but that doesn’t mean we expect anyone to have the same uniform opinion within that. We do not mandate what individual JSocs do: some choose to be involved in Israel debate, some don’t. It’s important to recognize that while the majority of Jewish students do have a connection with Israel as part of their identity, all identities are multi-faceted and none of them are the same.
Having said that, we do have mandated policies that are voted on every year at the UJS conference. We proudly support the two-state solution, we proudly stand against anti-Semitism, we also stand against BDS. At Sussex last year, for example, which is seen to be a very left-wing university, a BDS resolution failed because Jewish students took their own initiative and said that an academic boycott would be unacceptable. This policy isn’t imposed on JSocs but, as a union, we are opposed to BDS and will combat the delegitimization of Israel and work with our communal partners to do so.
What did you think of the discussion earlier this year about whether the UJS’ mandated policies on Israel exclude anti-Zionist students from JSocs?
It was a really interesting discussion and it stemmed from a debate we had at the UJS conference about how we do Israel. UJS is an inclusive space: we are cross-communal, peer-led, and representative, and I would hate to not to be to able to include anyone because of their beliefs.
‘I would want an open and inclusive space and it’s up to students within that to have the conversation’
It’s difficult because you have some students who are anti-Zionist and some for whom Zionism is part of their Jewish identity and if they didn’t get Zionism at a Jewish society, they would feel like they were missing something. It’s two Jews, three opinions – it’s impossible.
I’m not convinced it’s something you can ever completely solve. I would want an open and inclusive space and it’s up to students within that to have the conversation.
When did you become involved with UJS?
I started university in 2011 and I decided that I was going to sign up to women’s football and JSoc. I did play women’s football but I was part of a team that lost 24-0, which is approximately a goal conceded every three minutes, which is quite impressive and very tragic.
That was around the time I gave up – obviously I wasn’t a very good striker.
‘I loved that idea that you could empower someone to do things themselves rather than just doing it for them’
So, I got really involved in JSoc when I gave up football. I ran for the campaigns committee and was involved in their Israel work and then got involved in the UJS because of this.
Two years ago, Alex Green [a former president of the UJS] put the idea of running for president into my head. I was on the UJS National Council, went on a trip with the EUJS to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and I loved it. It was different, interesting, fun and all about peer leadership which is a value I grew up with in BBYO and I loved that idea that you could empower someone to do things themselves rather than just doing it for them.
What are your ambitions for your term as president?
I ran on a platform of accountability and representation and strengthening the functions we already have. One thing that’s already gone live is that we have a feedback form on our website because, as a first year [student], it’s really intimidating to call someone who works at the UJS. It shouldn’t be for them to feel like they have to make that move, we should be accessible to them, and through the feedback form people can have an instantaneous connection to the union.
Another priority is improving student services, including our liberation networks [a women’s, LGBT+, and disabled students’ network] which I feel can really grow over the next year. They’re relatively new, started in 2011, and I still think they have a way to go before they can enact change on the ground. Even if it’s just a social tool, these networks are really important as a space to help people come together, although I think they can be much more than that.
What major campaigns or initiatives is the UJS running at the moment?
Jewish Experience Week, which actually started last year, and it was unbelievable. You had thirty different campuses, and around 300 Jewish student leaders reaching around 3,000 non-Jewish students, talking to them about what it means to be Jewish.
We had Jewish students telling people, ‘Did you know that there are Ethiopian Jews, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Irish and Indian Jews?’ That we’re not a uniform body.
I’m so excited to see that re-run this year and I think it’s going to be even stronger in its second year. UJS hadn’t done something that big campaigns-wise in around seven years and I’m so proud of Maggie Sussia [UJS campaigns director] for pulling that off.