Students and tents on the lawn at the OA4P encampment

Jewish students, faculty dispute University antisemitism accusations

Jewish students and faculty today challenged the University’s accusation that pro-Palestinian encampments at the Radcliffe Camera and the Pitt Rivers Museum were antisemitic, arguing that such allegations undermine the student right to protest. 

The open letter to the Vice Chancellor was signed by Jewish faculty, staff, and emeritus staff at the University. Signees include Avi Shlaim, an Israeli and British Emeritus Fellow at St Antony’s College, known for his critical interpretations of the history of Israel and Zionism.

The faculty expressed their support for Oxford students, especially Jewish ones, who supported the international student movement protesting the Gaza conflict. 

They objected to the University’s “reductive and misleading claims” to speak on their behalf. They stated that “the characterisation of Jews as a uniform mass with a single viewpoint is itself a common and insidious antisemitic trope.” 

They also described themselves as “deeply disturbed” by the University’s use of rhetoric to “justify government interference in higher education and repression of student protest—all under the pretext of ‘protecting’ Jewish students and staff.” 

Jewish Students for Justice (JSJ) also released a statement rejecting the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition. 

The statement argued that conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism is “damaging to Jewish students and undermines legitimate discourse surrounding Israel and its government”. They also argued that this tactic has been used to silence criticism on university campuses across the US and the UK.

“There have been harmful attempts at Oxford to silence legitimate opposition to the Israeli states’ actions and its treatment of Palestinians, creating a pervasive chilling effect in UK universities,” the group said.

The University has reiterated its use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism “as a guide to interpreting and understanding antisemitism”, although with additional clarifications.

JSJ called on the University to create a working group to find an alternative definition to “connect the fight against antisemitism with the fight against all other forms of hate in this process.”

In their open letter, the faculty has also disputed accusations of antisemitism that the University has levelled at pro-Palestinian protesters, stating: “This is not our experience [of the encampments].”

JSJ has also argued that the University failed to address the assault on anti-Zionist students and Jewish students within the encampment, where “abusive individuals directly targeted Jewish students and tore off the JSJ banner.” They argued that: “This is antisemitism and a threat to Jewish students.”

This comes as the University’s statement last Thursday claimed that the Oxford encampment and actions created “a deeply intimidating environment for many members of our community, including our Jewish students and staff and members of the local Jewish community.”

The faculty statement also said that the University was not open to dialogue with the Jewish community supportive of the encampment, as it ignored some members of the Jewish community’s proposal of a conversation.

They concluded their letter, urging the University to listen and learn from the students and “follow the lead of colleagues” at the University of Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin, and the University of York. 

This comes as some universities in the UK started divestment negotiations with student encampment. Trinity College Dublin pledged to cut ties with Israeli companies on May 8th, and the University of Cambridge started negotiation talks last week.

A University spokesperson said: “The University is unequivocal in its position that there is no place for antisemitism, Islamophobia, or unlawful discrimination of any kind directed towards any faith, race, nationality or ethnic group at the University of Oxford. All complaints related to harassment or discrimination of any kind are taken seriously, and formal complaints are always investigated if they are considered to have taken place within the University context.

“We are in active conversation with the authors of the open letter about their concerns and to offer them further support. We have also written to update all staff and students this week about the University’s wider approach to the ongoing crisis in Gaza. This includes guidance on reporting cases of discrimination and harassment, and guidelines to ensure that student protests are conducted lawfully and safely for all members of the University’s community and the public,” stated the University.