Monday, October 31, 2011

To Be a Jewish University Student in Britain

One way to think of British Jewry is to focus on its slow and steady decline: 270,000 souls, demographically graying; synagogue affiliation on a downward spiral; out-marriage running at between 30-50 percent. The possibility of anti-Semitism a constant with 283 verified incidents reported in the first six months of 2011. Of these 41 were categorized as "extremely violent" and 11 took place on campus. The line between despising Israel and holding Jews in contempt has been blurred beyond recognition with the Guardian and Independent leading the way and even the once respectable Times joining in.

A more nuanced take, however, would view the community as a sort of gradually dying star: moribund yet illuminated. The "strictly Orthodox" are growing in number. Culture is thriving. Next month there will be another Jewish Film Festival. Over the Christmas holidays hundreds will gather in Coventry for the 30th annual Limmud Conference, which bills itself as a "carnival of Jewish learning." Construction will soon begin on a new Jewish community center in northwest London. There are more kosher restaurants in London today than there was after World War II when the Jewish population crested at about 450,000. It is not remarkable nowadays to spot young men openly wearing kipot on the London Underground – surely a sign of a community at ease. Hundreds gather every fall at the Regent's Park Bandstand to enjoy Kletzmer music in the shadow of London's Central Mosque.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, British Jewish life can be "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." To flip through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle one could erroneously conclude that its readers are desperate for any scrap of news about anti-Semitism, mesmerized by features on the Holocaust and famished – despite a steady diet in the British press – for more critical reportage of "east Jerusalem settlements" and uprooted Palestinian olive trees.

How the fate of British Jewry will play itself out will depend greatly on its next generation of leaders -- today's university students comprising a miniscule 0.5% of the country's 1.6 million undergraduates. Their attitudes have now been mined in a comprehensive survey conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a think-tank with loose ties to the Board of Deputies of British Jewry. As one would have expected, the younger generation is mostly pessimistic about their community's future and troubled about the way current leaders are managing its affairs, according to the report.

The survey authors, David Graham and Jonathan Boyd, note that the formative experiences of today's university cohort – all born in the late 1980s and early 1990s-- encompass the July 7, 2005 London bombings (by Islamist terrorists) and Operation Cast Lead (the 2008-2009 IDF campaign to halt Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel).
It is a generation that came of age in a "multi-cultural" England where Judeo-Christian values are not dominant. Britain's Muslim population stands at 2.87 million and growing; Islam is ascendant and Christianity in decline. Mohammed is most popular name for baby boys in London. On a good month, perhaps 1.7 million, mostly older worshippers attend Church of England services. The Church's hierarchy is riddled by clergy who do not believe in God.

In this milieu, and like their cohorts elsewhere in our post-modern, post-industrial, digital age being Jewish is mostly a personal lifestyle choice. With all that, the report's findings are generally encouraging. Seventy-nine percent agree that having a "religious identity" is integral to being Jewish; 95% basically embrace the idea of Jewish peoplehood. Though like many young Jews they conflate what it means to be Jewish with the Holocaust (83%) and anti-Semitism (75%).

By the time they reach university a majority will have had some formal Jewish education (though some will have been barred from attending day schools such as JFS over not being Orthodox). Nearly all will have been members of youth movements; about half arrive at university Jewishly observant, eating only kosher meat at home, for example. Remarkably, 27% are Sabbath observers. Most (59%) say their closest friends are Jewish. At the same time, of those who have had romantic relationships, just 40% have had exclusively Jewish partners. A clear majority of traditional respondents, but only a minority of progressives, agreed that it is important for Jews to marry other Jews.

Whatever their views, most Jewish students cluster (whether consciously or not) around a small number of universities mostly Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham, Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, and Bristol, and various London-area colleges. On campus, the majority professes to be open about their Jewishness and 72% say "supporting Israel" is integral to their Jewish identity. (Among the broader community, 80 percent feel a "commitment" to Israel.) An overwhelming majority has visited Israel and, no less important, hold predominantly positive attitudes. Eleven percent, however, is indifferent, ambivalent or negative toward the Jewish state. The key variable in attachment to Israel is level of commitment to tradition. The more observant students are the more emphatically pro-Israel.

In focus groups students found fault with the Jewish media and establishment for overemphasizing anti-Israel sentiment on campus, according to the report. Yet 42% nationwide say they have experienced anti-Semitism. And fully a third of Jewish students in London (where British Jewish life is centered) have experienced Jew-hatred. Indeed, a former head of the National Union of Students (NUS) who has a Jewish-sounding name but is not Jewish had to be escorted away from a Manchester demonstration against tuition hikes last year when louts in the audience chanted “Tory Jew scum."

This year, under different leadership, the NUS first adopted and then scrapped a range of anti-Zionist resolutions.

And last week, Mike Freer a pro-Israel Member of Parliament (yes, such a species still survives) was threatened in his London constituency offices by a Muslim crowd. While most non-Jewish university students are indifferent to Mideast issues, Jewish undergraduates prefer to keep their pro-Israel sentiments to themselves rather than risk the opprobrium of pro-Arab rabble-rousers on campus. Muslim extremists are disproportionately the perpetrators of anti-Semitic outrages.

Perhaps it is in this context -- rather than the dovish views of British Jewry generally -- that we should ponder the pathetic plan by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) leadership to distribute both Palestinian and Israeli flags on campuses. The risible idea is to prove that Jewish students, too, support "freedom, justice and equality." It will be interesting to see whether the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) begins distributing Israeli flags to prove it has come around to supporting a two-state solution.

To be fair, when University of College London President and Provost Malcolm Grant outrageously declared that campus anti-Semitism was not a problem, the UJS called on him to "stop ignoring the harmful influence of extremists," though the former head of the Jewish student union at UCL said more plainly: "He knows this is an outright lie." In any event, it is left to unapologetically pro-Israel groups like "Stand With Us" to proactively campaign for Israel and against Palestinian Arab intransigence.

The authors of the report, David Graham and Jonathan Boyd, argue that it's time to put campus hostility toward Israel into perspective. "Anti-Semitism continues to be a significant issue on campus, but it is also subtle and complex" and on the whole, a reader might conclude, students have become inured to toxic hatred of Jews and Israel.

Boyd acknowledged that Jewish students can't articulate pro-Israel sentiments without "grief." Non-Brits might read it as quintessential British understatement, but the report takes cold comfort in finding that students are more concerned about grades, relationships and future aspirations than day-to-day anti-Semitism. The problem may be so endemic, crushing and discouraging that pondering it for too long can sap morale.

Or as Boyd argues more delicately, anti-Israel hostility "should not dominate our view, not least because over-emphasizing it appears to be affecting the Jewish identities of this young generation."

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