Among the people who I have met in FZY, ex-Bristol Jewish Society Vice-President Issie Levin is one of the members most devoted to changing the world for the better. After some recent events at the JSoc in Bristol, she felt let down by the Jewish student community in the city. Let this article be a call to arms for all the Jews who read it; "if we really mean ‘Never Again’ then our perspectives cannot be so inverted."
As a girl from Leeds whose Jewish identity as a teenager was pretty much grounded and shaped by my involvement with FZY, I still found myself shocked by the North-West London dominated Jewish Bubble that we have in Bristol. I wouldn’t have thought a few months later I would have stood up to run, and subsequently be elected as the Vice-President of that very society. I was now within the bubble.
Bristol JSoc proved this year that they are a vital organism in Bristol University life. I am proud of our achievements. I’m proud of the dinners we cooked every week, no matter how much I resented them at the time. I’m proud of the breadth of events we held: from pre drinks, to International Women’s Day discussions and Holocaust Memorial Day Events. I’m proud of the work that myself and fellow committee members put into fighting anti-Semitism on campus.
This year we have fought anti-Semitism on many fronts. Our President - fellow FZY Bogeret Nina Freedman - has worked tirelessly to ensure that Jewish students feel not just protected, but welcome on campus. Incidents this year included blatant anti-Semitic comments from both The BME Network Chair and a Sociology lecturer. Yet, it was most recently that Jewish voices were finally heard, as we faced a reluctance from university academics to accept The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
It was just a couple of weeks ago when numerous students on campus came out in force, at 8.30am, to create constructive dialogues with senior University trustees as to why they should support the adoption of the IHRA Definition, with full examples. This was undoubtedly one of my proudest moments, not just as a JSoc Vice-President, but as a young Jewish woman. However, while all of these things have been emotionally draining and challenging, it was on my very last day of official Vice-Presidency when I faced my worst, personal crisis.
Over a year ago I had never heard of International Genocide Awareness and Prevention Day; on the 9th December every year people come together to commemorates the passing of The Genocide Convention, and this day aims to create a greater sense of genocide awareness. My knowledge of other genocides was pretty much limited to a clip of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ we had watched in an RS lesson at school. When a certain youth trustee for The Ishami Foundation, a charity which aims to use genocide experience to connect us to our common humanity, came into my life, the light began to shed on the unspoken atrocities of the past. I would arguably say before meeting Joel, I was part of the 53% of The UK that could not name a genocide since The Holocaust.
Having spent the past year trying to learn and listen as much as I could, I was particularly excited to hear a collaboration between Bristol JSoc and The UoB History Society. The societies commemorated International Genocide Awareness and Prevention Day 2019 with a talk from Eric Murangwa MBE, a survivor of the Genocide Against The Tutsi in Rwanda.
The 9th December arrived, a day which was significant for Jewish students in Bristol, not because of our JSoc Event, but because Corbyn was due to host a rally just down the road from campus.
One thing to note about Bristol Jews is that they are extremely politically active, and they are angry. There was a flurry of anticipation, we were going to get our voices heard; posters in hand we descended upon the rally.
The abuse that Jewish students received has been widely reported across University and national outlets. Shouts of ‘filthy Jews’, ‘filthy Zionists’ and questions regarding which Israeli organisation/ media company had funded us are undoubtedly abhorrent and cannot be stood for. A Socialist Workers Party member ran over to me when she saw I was being given a Green Party Sticker and told the girl who was conversing with me, why do you want to be associated with ‘them’.
However, it was not all so horrific. Positive news will always fail to make headlines, and so what has been forgotten are some of the more positive and engaging dialogues we created with Labour supporters. I spoke to one individual who was ashamed and disgusted by Labour’s institutional inability to deal with anti-Semitism. While the gentleman and I disagreed on whether Corbyn was personally responsible, he was still horrified to hear that I felt my democratic rights had been limited; Jews no longer felt as if they had the right to choose who they were voting for. We laughed and dismayed together over the so-called competition as to which of Corbyn or Johnson were the bigger racist. We bonded over the fact we were both Yorkshire born and bred. We ended our dialogue by shaking hands. Our conflicting views did not take precedent over the fact we were two human beings who actually agreed more than we disagreed; we had unfairly been pitted against one another.
On reflection, I’m frustrated at how that protest happened. This does not mean I do not believe it shouldn’t have happened. As a small sector of society, it is vital that our collective voice does not get lost or unheard.
I believe the advice we were given failed us, the provocative suggestions of how to get our faces noticed and how best to grab media attention resulted in causing a ruckus which ended up being even more divisive, and more unsafe for Jewish students. We as individuals must also take responsibility for our actions, however. People have a right to be angry at The Labour Party. Yet, ‘Corbyn <3 Terrorists’ signs are not going to heal divisions. Should we not have been saying ‘Enough is Enough’? We should have focused on bringing people together towards a greater awareness to anti-Semitism. I went home and tried to focus on the evening. It was still, not to forget, Genocide and Awareness Prevention Day, and we were still running our event.
I’d pleaded with those at the protests to attend the event we’d worked so hard on. We had protested against people who advocate for Holocaust Denial and we’d championed anti-racism. It was necessary this translated in all our actions. The event wasn’t about anti-Semitism or Jewish people, but it was about healing divisions, breaking out of our Jewish bubble to learn lessons from the past.
I was devastated, no, I was seething, to see less than 10 Jewish students in the room. Only 3 people - including a UJS rep and my boyfriend Joel, the youth trustee of the charity - had bothered to like/ engage with a video campaign on genocide awareness which had been shared on the Bristol JSoc page. That page has 1000 members. Looking back on my year, I am proud of what I achieved. Looking back on yesterday, I am devastated by the close-minded attitudes and lack of care which in this case, Jewish students were unfortunately guilty of. To quote a message I received from my sister, ‘if people aren't consistent in their views then their views aren't worth the paper they're written on’.
As Jewish people we have a responsibility to open our eyes and actually look out at the world around us. No, not just to look, but to actually care about things going on outside of North-West London and Israel. I questioned whether I was expecting too much of people. Yet, if we really mean ‘Never Again’ then our perspectives cannot be so inverted.
It is criminal that as a society we are often so solely absorbed in ourselves and the issues that directly affect us. Of course, I understand that this isn’t a specifically Jewish issue; it’s a humanitarian one. However, it is my experiences within this community which have moulded my perspective. I’ve always viewed Jewish people as sustaining a high moral compass. Yesterday, I began to see myself as doubting that, "when it came to other people that did not belong to our own, people did not seem to care." By no means do I see myself as perfect, but I do see myself as someone who cares. I once again began to feel more outside the bubble, than within.