After Controversies, University of Essex Hosts 500-Person Rally Against Antisemitism
Some 500 students, staff and community members gathered at the University of Essex on Thursday in a show of solidarity against antisemitism, after the formation of the English school’s Jewish Society faced opposition from hundreds of students while a lecturer was accused of sharing offensive posts on Jews, Israel, and the Holocaust.
Vice Chancellor Anthony Forster applauded the Students’ Union decision to ratify the Jewish society last week, after some 200 students voted against it in a poll.
“Today we have come together to show that antisemitism is completely antithetical to the values of the University of Essex — and it has absolutely no place on our campuses and in our relationships with each other,” Forster said, reiterating the school’s commitment to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
“Antisemitism will not end simply because we stood together on this day at this time to oppose it,” he added. “Each and every one of our community needs to ensure that by our actions, the lived experience of Jewish people at our University is one of which we can be proud.”
The university attracted public scrutiny following reports of opposition to the Jewish society, allegedly including from computer science lecturer Maaruf Ali, who was reported to have commented on Facebook, “the Zionists next want to create a society here at our university.” Ali was also accused of sharing controversial posts featuring Holocaust denial, calling a French police officer who was killed by Islamists in 2015 a “crypto-Jew,” and comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.
An investigation into his activities is ongoing, while the school has committed to launching a broader probe against antisemitism — moves commended by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main representative group for UK Jewry.
Amy-Julie Fogiel, the Jewish society’s founder, stated in a social media post on Tuesday that the university’s Palestinian solidarity group had also come out against the society’s ratification, as did the campus’ branch of the advocacy group Amnesty International UK. According to a note posted online by a member of Amnesty Essex, their objections stemmed from the Jewish society’s stated desire to commemorate Israel’s national Independence Day. Amnesty International UK subsequently distanced both itself and Amnesty Essex from the note, whose language initially indicated that it was written on behalf of the entire club.
In the face of this campaign, Fogiel said her society received supportive letters from students all across the UK through the Council of Christians and Jews.
She also spoke during Thursday’s rally, alongside Chancellor John Bercow. In a note to attendees that was read aloud by Forster in his absence, Bercow affirmed that Jewish student and staff enjoy the right of free association within the law “with, equal to and no different from, anyone else.”
“The right to meet, to be themselves, and to assert their Jewish identity is inalienable. It is unconditional. It is non-negotiable,” he added. “It does not depend upon what such students and staff think of the government of Israel, the state of the Middle East peace process, or any particular policy — be it national, international or global.”
Other speakers included Tanki Chartier, president of the university’s Students’ Union; Tim Young, deputy leader of the Colchester Borough Council; and representatives from the national Union of Jewish Students and the university’s Multi-Faith Chaplaincy Center.