SCoJeC was delighted to facilitate a meeting between First Minister Humza Yousaf and Jewish students from around Scotland after he asked us to arrange an opportunity for him to hear first hand about their experiences on campus since the Hamas pogrom on 7 October. As well as students from seven Scottish universities, the meeting was also attended by the Jewish student chaplains, Rabbi Eliran and Ayalah Shabo, the Union of Jewish Students, and SCoJeC’s Chair and Director.
The First Minister began by speaking warmly about growing up in the heart of Scotland’s largest Jewish community, and attending the school which in those days had the largest number of Jewish pupils in Scotland, and he thanked SCoJeC for picking up his hint and presenting him with a box of sufganiyot on Chanukah! He said the Jewish Community is important and makes a valuable contribution to the fabric of the country, so if Jewish people feel unsafe in Scotland, that is a problem that he and his government need to tackle. Individuals should never be held responsible for the actions of any government, and whether or not Jewish people support the actions of the Israeli government, they should not be held to account for it. In the current context, he stressed that should be possible to have discussions and even disagreements with respect.
As well specific issues on different campuses, there were a number of common themes. A number of the students said that before October, Jewish Student Societies used to be open and hold joint events with others, including university Islamic Societies, but this now feels so uncomfortable that they don’t even try. The First Minister commented that he is currently experiencing this same resistance to bringing religious leaders together – there is too much raw hurt, and people fear a backlash if they are even seen in the same room together.
Representatives from the smaller J-Socs said they feel particularly exposed – they are made to feel like the token Jew on campus, and are expected to know everything and to defend the Israeli perspective on the conflict and explain Middle East politics to people some of whom have never even heard of Hamas! One student commented that he felt he has had to be more of a politician than a student, and another said “I can’t be the one to explain every time”.
Most of the students reported that they had received little or no support from their universities, and what there had been was too late and too weak. Many students do not feel safe wearing any identifiably Jewish symbols such as a magen david or kippah, or even safe enough to report what happens to them. In some places, university officials were “listening but not acting”, while in others they were openly hostile, were clearly not happy to be there or to do anything, and after three months there had still been no action. The consensus was that universities should take the initiative by putting out guidance rather than waiting to be asked to mediate.
Some of the representatives said that it was obvious that some anti-Israel posters are part of a nationally orchestrated campaign, for example a national poster campaign calling for an “Intifada” – the sponsors claim this just means a general strike rather than terrorist attacks on civilians, but universities and student unions can end up condoning antisemitism because they conflate anti-Israel with antisemitism and lack sufficient knowledge to understand or know who to believe.
The First Minister responded that this is unacceptable and he was very disappointed to hear it. He said this shows a lack of communal humanity – one can condemn the atrocity, and express sympathy for the hostages, and still express concern about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He empathised with Jewish students who feel that their university is not a safe space, and added that these incidents reminded him of how he was treated at school after 9/11 – “it’s just a way of targeting people because of their faith”.
Summing up the meeting, he said that victims should never feel that they “just come to expect that”. Mechanisms exist to report incidents to the police and university authorities, and he asked the student representatives to collate information for the Scottish Government hate crime team to follow up.
Commenting after the meeting, the First Minister said he had listened to “the concerns of students from Scotland’s Jewish Societies around campus safety, and reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s zero tolerance approach to antisemitism, and solidarity with Jewish communities in Scotland and abroad.”
SCoJeC Director Ephraim Borowski commented, "SCoJeC was delighted to respond to the First Minister's request to hear directly from Jewish students about their experiences on campus since the October 7th atrocity by arranging a meeting attended by students from seven Scottish universities, the Jewish Chaplains to Scottish universities, and UJS. The First Minister was clearly disturbed by what he heard about Jewish students hiding their identity, receiving no support from their universities, and being made to answer for the actions of a foreign country. We are very grateful to him for his time and his empathy, and hope that his instruction to Scottish Government officials to explore how they can support our students at this tragic time will bear fruit and give them some comfort."