Concerns over ‘antisemitic’ play at York highlight wider issue

Update 05/04/2016: The risk assessment carried out by YUSU, obtained by a Freedom of Information request, has been seen by Student Rights, and it is worrying that no formal assessment of the play’s content appears to have been carried out.

The student union assessment does not factor in the allegations of antisemitism surrounding the play, or consider the risk posed to campus cohesion as a result of these allegations, though it does consider the risk of the performance being disturbed as a result of the subject matter.

Jewish students have frequently highlighted that their concerns about this issue are not taken seriously on campus and YUSU’s assessment appears to reinforce this idea.

Last month, Student Rights reported on the allegations of antisemitism at Oxford University Labour Club, highlighting the extent of the issue on our campuses.

Members of the Labour Club were accused of having “some kind of problem with Jews”, as well as justifying Hamas’ targeting of Jewish civilians and promoting antisemitic tropes and conspiracies.

Reports of this behaviour sparked widespread condemnation, including from senior politicians, and we are pleased that the Labour Party has launched an investigation into the society.

However, as we wrote at the time, the problem is wider than just one university, something demonstrated last week when the Palestinian Solidarity Society (PSS) at the University of York staged two productions of ‘Seven Jewish Children’, a play “widely described as antisemitic”.

Described by Howard Jacobson as “Jew-hating, pure and simple”, the play’s defenders claim it is merely an anti-Zionist critique of Israel and Israeli policy.

However, as Dave Rich and Mark Gardner from the Community Security Trust have stated: “It is Jewish thought and behaviour that links the play together, not Israel. The words Israel, Israelis, Zionism and Zionist are not mentioned once in the play”.

They have also pointed out that:“We are often told that when people talk about Israel or Zionists, it is mischievous to accuse them of meaning Jews. Now, we are expected to imagine that a play that talks only of Jews, in fact, means Israelis.”

Following the PSS’ performances of the play on campus, the University of York Jewish Society raised its concerns to the University of York Student Union (YUSU).

In a statement, the society claimed the decision to approve the events reflected the wider culture of YUSU, which it alleges treats the concerns of Jewish students with contempt.

It goes on to say the union has “refused to act” when concerns of antisemitism have been raised in the past, and “the Jewish Society has been completely alone in the battle against antisemitism on campus”.

Following the publication of the statement, the Jewish Society secretary, Jordan Hennessy, said the society “had not received a response from the university addressing their concerns”, and “the only reply…was to inform them they were contacting the wrong department”.

Since then, university officials have invited the society to a meeting in order to discuss their concerns, as has the student union.

Despite this, it is clear Jewish students at York feel the university and student union have little concern for their welfare, something which appears to reflect wider concerns across the country.

If universities and student unions are to deal with this they must ensure they have robust policies and clear processes in place to deal with complaints, and ensure these are followed to avoid students feeling as if no-one is listening to them.

Until this is the case, the blurring of the boundaries between pro-Palestine activism and antisemitism which has occurred on campuses all too often will continue to leave Jewish students marginalised and vulnerable at their own universities.

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