Jewish students and staff no longer feel safe at UU

‘I don’t dare wear my necklace with the Star of David anymore out of fear of the comments’

Walk-Out protest Foto: DUB
Walk-Out protest at the Administration Buiding Photo: DUB

I was going to a study appointment in the Langeveld building and walked past the University Library, where a pro-Palestinian protest was happening. Some students rushed to me when they saw my necklace with the Star of David, shouting: 'Look! A Jew!' In an intimidating way, they yelled at me: 'Are you for or against genocide?' I was totally overwhelmed. Someone from security was standing nearby but they didn't intervene. The protesters called me a child murderer as I tried to run away.” This incident is one of the reasons why Eva*, a Social Sciences student, doesn’t dare come to the university anymore. She doesn’t feel safe here anymore. 

Teacher Noa* also refrains from wearing a necklace with the Star of David. “People immediately call you out on your Jewishness, treating you as a representative of this group and demanding you take a stand. It’s hard for me to hide my identity because I have a Jewish surname, so I am confronted with this regularly. Even before they say hello, the students I teach ask me if I’m Jewish, if I live kosher, and if I know anyone in Israel. They also want me to share my opinion about the conflict. Although I appreciate their curiosity, it's very uncomfortable for me to be addressed this directly. Since October 7, people on both sides of the conflict have been severely traumatised.” Noa has been working from home as much as possible. She goes home right after her lecture and teaches online when protests happen at the university. She also avoids social gatherings at work. 

Eva and Noa, who prefer not to use their real names in this article, are part of a WhatsApp group for people with a Jewish or Israeli background working or studying at UU and the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences. The group was created to write a joint letter to UU's Executive Board, but it also serves as a space to inform and support each other. “Many students and staff feel lonely right now. They have lost friends because of discussions about the conflict,” says Judith, who works in the Administration Building. She and a colleague had the idea to do something to support Jewish and Israeli students and make their voices audible to the rest of the university community. 

“We saw that Jewish and Israeli students had written letters together at the University of Amsterdam and Columbia University, in the United States. So, we started looking for UU students and alumni interested in doing the same. Soon, students and staff from the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU) and the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU) asked us if they could participate too. We've got about seventy people in the group right now.”

One of the points made in their letter is that the group feels intimidated by some of the slogans used by protesters. Boaz, an employee of the Faculty of Geosciences, explains why: “When a mob shouts ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’, it is de facto trying to erase the existence of the State of Israel, and with it the eight million Jews who live there. This is a violent call, which is not democratic and stems from antisemitism. Another example is the call against Zionism. I talked to a lot of students on campus and most of them didn’t know the meaning of Zionism, which is the right to exist and self-determination for an independent Jewish state.”

Academic debate
Boaz grew up in Israel. His grandparents had to flee Egypt in the 1940s because of violent pogroms against Jews. He lived through the second Intifada, a period of terror attacks in Israel at the beginning of the 21st century when many Israeli civilians died. He experienced this violence up close and therefore thinks it's terrible that people use the word Intifada now. "Do they know what it means for us and what kind of fear it evokes?" he wonders. Boaz attended mixed Jewish-Arab schools in Israel, where he learned both Hebrew and Arabic. He also studied at the University of Jerusalem, where a large proportion of the student body is Palestinian. “They were friends of mine. I sympathise with them and hope that peace will come soon.”

I attended a meeting organised by the Faculty of Humanities, titled 'Gaza in context'. I found the approach very one-sided: all the panellists were against Israel. So, I spoke out. Afterwards, people came to me, saying they appreciated what I had done.” Boaz adds: “These lectures are organised by specific groups with a clear anti-Israel agenda. Their goal is not to inform the participants objectively. In my opinion, these meetings are very indoctrinating and inappropriate in an academic setting. They are harmful and increase polarization.” 

All students and employees consulted by DUB stress that the conflict between Israel and Hamas is extremely complicated. “The university is a place for academic debate. That's where faculty and students learn to filter information, use reliable academic sources to present their arguments, and criticise each other constructively. In doing so, they contribute to the development of science and hopefully a better and more peaceful world. I understand that emotions are running high and people need to protest. However, in my view, it would make more sense to demonstrate in places related to political power, such as embassies, rather than on university grounds,” ponders Noa.  

Judith tells DUB that the group's initial goal was to write a letter to the Executive Board “to make clear how Jewish and Israeli students and staff experience the violent demonstrations and why we do not feel safe at work and the classroom. We've already met with one of the members of the Executive Board as a result of the letter. It was a good conversation. We have agreed to keep talking to each other and that they can use us as a kind of sounding board.” 

For example, they consider the university's e-mail about the walkout on May 13 an unfortunate choice. Judith: “By actively communicating this, it looks as though you are promoting the demonstration. Many people – including people without a Jewish background – found this uncomfortable or intimidating. Suddenly, you have to show your colours in front of your colleagues or fellow students. That makes you feel unsafe.” Eva adds: “The e-mail said that anyone who participated in the protest could get a resit if they missed an exam that day. If I don’t attend a seminar or don’t dare take an exam because I feel unsafe, there is no compensation for me. The study advisor said he couldn’t arrange it for me.” 

Jewish social organisations
What needs to be done to allow the Jewish and Israeli community at UU to work and study safely again? The four people interviewed by DUB acknowledge that the university can’t change the situation just like that and the harassment will not completely disappear overnight. However, they do think that the university could take more action. Lecturer Noa argues that it would be good to have a dialogue at the university at some point, from an empathetic approach in which emotions could be shared. But, in his view, it is too early for that as the war is still ongoing. “It’s just that something like this needs to be carefully supervised. I started conversations with Muslim colleagues and students. They were good talks, but we missed a mediator to steer the conversation in the right direction. The university could help with that.”

Noa received an offer from her supervisor to hire a coach to deal with the situation in the workplace. “That was a good idea, but the coach didn’t have a Jewish background, so I feared that it wouldn’t work. I hadn’t followed up on that yet when the WhatsApp group was created. I find a lot of support there, we understand each other.” 

That was nice and it gave me some peace of mind, but it really shouldn’t be necessary. I’ve noticed that it is difficult for the university to deal with this. They could call on Jewish civil society organisations which have much more experience in dealing with such conflictual situations and the specific background of Jewish people. I also think that the university should take stronger action when people shout intimidating or insulting slogans. The house rules clearly state that these are not allowed.”  

Student Eva would also like to not be confronted with slogans she considers horrible. She would also like to not have to constantly defend herself or be held directly responsible for policies she has nothing to do with. In addition, she believes that the study programme should be more understanding and supporting of Jewish/Israeli students faced with these issues. She doesn’t feel that they are sufficiently supportive now.

Given the sensitivity of the subject, Noa and Eva preferred not to have their real names mentioned in this article. DUB's editors know their identity.