UK university rabbi goes into hiding after death threats over wartime IDF service

‘Hundreds’ of menacing messages, phone calls targeting Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch for reserve duty drive him and family out of their home, as campus antisemitism flares post-October 7

Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, Jewish chaplain at the University of Leeds, in the fall of 2023, during his reserve duty during Israel's war against Hamas. (screen capture: X, used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, Jewish chaplain at the University of Leeds, in the fall of 2023, during his reserve duty during Israel's war against Hamas. (screen capture: X, used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The Jewish chaplain at the University of Leeds was forced into hiding with his family after receiving numerous death threats over his service as a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, the UK’s Daily Mail reported Friday.

Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, a rabbinical emissary serving as the Jewish chaplain of several British universities since 2021, returned to Israel to serve in the IDF during the war in Gaza. Since resuming his chaplaincy in January, he has received multiple messages and phone calls threatening violence against him, his wife Nava, and their two children.

The threats, reported by the Daily Mail to be in the “hundreds”, were graphic and profane, and led local police to transfer the Deutsch family to a safe location, amid a worrying rise in antisemitism in the United Kingdom, both on and off campus, following Israel’s war on Hamas.

The war was triggered by Hamas’s brutal October 7 onslaught, which saw thousands of Hamas-led terrorists storm southern Israel to kill some 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and take 253 hostages of all ages, while committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Following the shock assault, Israel launched a massive offensive in the Gaza Strip, which has claimed the lives of over 28,000 Palestinians to date, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. The figure, which cannot be independently verified, does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, of whom the IDF claims to have killed over 10,000. The army also said it killed some 1,000 Hamas operatives in Israel on October 7.

On Western university campuses, the war has sparked unprecedented anti-Zionist protests, which sometimes feature thinly veiled antisemitic rhetoric. At the University of Leeds where Deutsch is chaplain, the Jewish campus Hillel House was defaced Friday with “Free Palestine” graffitied on its walls.

The campaign against Rabbi Deutsch has been waged since at least November 2023, when a petition was circulated by Leeds students demanding the rabbi’s dismissal from the chaplaincy of their university, as well as those of Sheffield, York, Bradford and Leeds Beckett universities, for having “left the UK to participate in a foreign war with the Israeli army, even going as far as sharing videos on an open student WhatsApp group.”

On Friday, students at Leeds University staged a protest in the city calling for Deutsch’s dismissal, which the Daily Mail reported was organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Socialist Worker Student Society. A similar protest was held on campus in November.

The Friday protest came after the campaign against Deutsch was picked up by the Muslim Association of Britain, a self-described “grassroots” organization shown by the London-based Jewish Chronicle to have ties to Hamas, which called the rabbi a “war criminal complicit in genocide.”

“We are deeply shocked and appalled by the despicable torrent of horrific anti-Semitic hate and threats of violence being directed at Rabbi Deutsch and his family,” the Daily Mail quoted the University Jewish Chaplaincy as saying.

“To find ourselves in this situation in the UK in 2024 marks a dark day for British Jews,” the Chaplaincy added.

Ohr Torah Stone announces in 2021 that Rabbi Zecharia and Nava Deutsch will be taking up the position of campus chaplains at Leeds University in England. (Courtesy)

Like other diaspora communities, British Jewry has faced rising levels of antisemitism during the current Gaza conflict, including recent attacks on a kosher supermarket and a group of Israelis putting up posters of hostages. A recent poll found “frightening” rates of antisemitic tropes among British youth.

Rabbi Deutsch and his wife Nava both trained for two years at Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Institute for rabbinical emissaries in Jerusalem. They previously worked with the Jewish community in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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