Behind the Headlines Trouble on British Campuses
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines Trouble on British Campuses

Download PDF for this date

The city of York is infamous in Jewish history because it was there in 1190, that the entire Jewish community committed suicide in the castle, Massada-style, rather than be massacred by a howling mob. In 1977, York once more became a source of anxiety for English Jewry when an incredulous community heard that the small Jewish Students Society at the city’s university was being expelled by the main students union because of the claim that Zionism was racist.

The affair caused concern in the Board of Deputies of British Jews and, while aware that this was “only” a matter of student politics, and that life and limb were not at stake, one or two speakers referred to the earlier painful Jewish associations with that northern city.

However, communal and student leaders have drawn comfort from the steadfast and energetic manner in which committed Jewish students are standing up for themselves. There is a feeling, too, that the anti-Zionist campaigners have overplayed their hands and are alienating growing numbers of non-Jewish students.

The affair hit the national headlines, and the York Students Union was quickly shamed into reversing its expulsion of the Jewish society, but not before the vice-chancellor of the university had threatened to intervene. However, the events at York were only one episode in a wave of anti-Zionist agitation, which has swept British campuses over the past year, and which threatens to grow stronger.


In a research report issued here, the Institute for Jewish Affairs notes that only about 20 percent of Britain’s 650,000 university and college students are politically active and of these only a minority have a special interest in the Middle East. The debate about the Middle East in the universities has boiled down mainly to a pro-Palestine Liberation Organization and anti-PLO confrontation, thus giving rise to the extreme statements about Israel and Zionism.

There are some 15,000 Arab and between 9000 and 12,000 Jewish students on the campuses. While most Arabs are members of an Arab student society, only about 3000 of the Jews belong to the Union of Jewish Students. Thus in general the ratio of organized Arab and Jewish students is 15 to 3. But in a large number of vocational training places–where Arabs are heavily concentrated–the Jews are out-numbered by Arab and Third World students by 400 to 1 or even more.

For some years now, anti-Zionist groups, such as the British Anti-Zionist Organization (BAZO) and the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) have been agitating for an anti-Zionist resolution through the national conference of the generally moderate National Union of Students (NUS).

NUS is currently the only national students union in Europe without any policy on the Middle East and at a meeting of all the European unions in Nicosia in January, 1977, the NUS used its veto to prevent a pro-Palestinian motion from being carried. In the last year, however, the anti-Zionist campaign has gathered momentum, to the growing discomfiture of the NUS leadership.


In the last two terms alone, anti-Zionist resolutions were debated in 21 student unions throughout the country. The anti-Zionist move was successful at 11 campuses, and failed at seven. At two universities, Jewish societies took out writs against the local student unions after attempts to deny them access to the unions’ normal facilities.

In their anti-Zionist crusade, the PLO supporters exploit a resolution carried at the National Union of Students annual conference three years ago, enabling unions to refuse assistance of any kind to “openly racist and fascist organizations.” Citing the 1975 United Nations resolution, equating Zionism with racism, they have sought with considerable success to censure or expel Jewish and Israel societies.

It was on the basis of this policy that the students union at York decided to expel the Jewish society from its register on June 15. Another bitter struggle during the same term was at Salford, in the Greater Manchester area. Although a Palestine Week was held there in March, the students union tried to prevent the Jewish society from staging an Israel week.

Despite taking legal action, the Jewish society only partly succeeded in carrying out its program on the campus. As in York, the university administration and the NUS Executive tried to intervene on behalf of the beleaguered Jewish students.


When the new academic year starts in October, the Middle East battle of the campuses will be resumed. It is expected, too, that Zionism will be debated at the next national conference of the NUS in December, and that finally some form of official NUS policy on the Middle East will emerge.

The fact that some Jewish societies have invoked the support of the Chancellors of their universities will not, however, stand them in good stead, since students in Britain as elsewhere resent the pressures of “the establishment.”

The Jewish students will have to count primarily on themselves and on their student sympathizers. Besides conservative supporters, these include the followers of what is termed “the broad left.” (as opposed to the Trotskyite and Anarchist elements). The broad left embraces not only Labor Party supporters but even orthodox Communists, such as Sue Slipman, president of the NUS.

In an article in The Morning Star, the Communist Party daily, Ms. Slipman, who is Jewish, wrote: “It is all very well for sections of the left to argue that their intention is to see justice done to the democratic cause of the Palestinians; but if a result of their good intentions is to deny rights to Jewish students then a re-examination of their methods is necessary.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund