Europe’s Jewish Students Face Antisemitic Onslaught
If there were a survival handbook for Jewish students at the universities of Europe, it would probably begin with this:
- Tell no one that you’re Jewish.
- Condemn Israel as a terrorist, genocidal state.
- Get used to it.
This, at least, has been the experience of students at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, according to recent reports and an eye-opening interview with a Jewish student leader there.
But students at universities in Belgium, France, and the UK have faced similar forms of antisemitism on campus. A press outlet in the UK declared last month that “antisemitic abuse on university campuses has reached record levels” — a full 59 percent higher than in 2020. One student at Glasgow University was encouraged to “go gas herself,” according to the Times; another was sent a photoshopped image of her head in a guillotine.
And it’s not just students. As one professor at the University of Maastricht told a Jewish colleague, “If you want to keep your job, don’t tell anyone that you’re Jewish and that you support Israel.”
Speaking to the Dutch online newspaper Israel Nieuws, Maastricht student Ethan Gabriel Bergman described dozens of incidents at the school, including the administration’s decision to ignore International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the school calendar, noting only “Chocolate Cake Day,” which falls on the same date. This past May, as anti-Israel demonstrations rocked Europe, protesters at the university carried banners claiming that “all [Israel] wants to see is blood. Arab blood, as much as possible — blood, the more the better — blood, the main thing is that Arab blood is spilled,” as others repeated anti-Israel chants in Arabic.
Yet when a Jewish student wrote despairingly of this in a student Facebook group, the replies that came in were anything but supportive. “Filthy cancer-Jew, I hope that they turn the gas chambers back on,” one person wrote, and another: “your stinking people will be destroyed.”
Seeking disciplinary action, the student, who remains anonymous, reported the incident to university administrators. The response: Don’t you think you deserved it for being so unfriendly?
Bergman, too, has seen his share of Jew-hate. Earlier this year, he returned to his apartment in student housing to find a swastika painted on his door, and his mezuzah smashed to the ground. And the majority of his own professors, he told Israel Nieuws, have signed on to support efforts to Boycott, Divest from, and Sanction Israel (known as the BDS movement) — a trend that he, as a member of the European Jewish Association (EJA), has seen spreading internationally.
The EJA itself, he said, has been told that “universities and student groups will only work with them if Jewish students turn against Israel and establish no links with Israel during joint events.” This, he said, amounts to telling Jews that they must support the BDS movement in order to be accepted by non-Jews.
Despite this history, when Holland’s Jewish human rights organization, Centrum Informatie en Documentatie Israel, asked the University of Maastricht to respond to Bergman’s interview, its board of directors denied knowledge of any of the incidents or trends he described. “Neither employees nor students have made complaints of any concrete instances of discrimination,” they stated.
Maastricht — one of Europe’s top 50 universities, with over 21,000 students — is also not the only university in the Netherlands with a rabid antisemitism problem. In 2018, members of the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the Vrij Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam, supported by the far-left group Revolutionaire Eenheid, invited Palestinian terrorist Rasmieh Odeh to speak at the school. (Similar campaigns supporting Odeh, who participated in two 1969 bombings in Jerusalem — one of which killed two Jewish students — also took place at Harvard Law School in 2016.)
Meanwhile, in Belgium, the University of Gent released a statement last May declaring “solidarity with the Palestinian people who, since 1948, have opposed a settler-colonial regime involved in ethnic cleansing … and apartheid” — and 1,300 professors, researchers, and students signed the statement, according to Belgium’s Mondiale News.
Some of this anti-Israel mentality can be explained simply by demographics. Muslim students vastly outnumber Jewish students in both secondary schools and universities in Europe. Non-Muslim students have more exposure to Muslims, have more friends who are Muslim, and are more widely exposed to the viewpoints of their Muslim peers, who inevitably are anti-Israel. As Bergman points out in his interview, he is often the first Jew his fellow students ever meet.
But that doesn’t explain the full aggressiveness of the anti-Jewish hate on Europe’s campuses, nor does it explain the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel sentiments of so many European professors.
Alongside the rapid spread of misinformation via social media is the lack of real knowledge many young Europeans (and Americans) have of the Holocaust, let alone of the history of Israel and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. A recent study in the UK revealed that only 52 percent of Brits knew the number of Jews killed in the Shoah; other studies found that 10 percent of British students believed no more than 100,000 Jews perished. In a survey conducted by the Anne Frank Foundation, nearly 60 percent of Dutch students were aware that 6 million Jews were killed, but that left over 40 percent who don’t know.
What’s more, Holocaust survivor Regine Suchowolski-Sluszny, who regularly gives lectures in Belgian schools about her own experiences, told Israel Nieuws that teachers often come to her with questions about Israel and Palestine, attempting to compare the Nazi regime with Israel.
“They have little knowledge of the history or the actual situation in the Middle East,” she said. “It isn’t of interest to them, and so they go along with what they hear on TV.” Even the books they use, she said, are “far from objective.” The result: Belgium has one of the lowest views of Israel, and of Jews, in Europe.
“It is not politically correct to openly support Jewish people,” Suchowolski-Sluszny noted. “And certainly not the state of Israel.”
At times, it goes further. In one instance, she said, a student told the school director, “I will not shake the hand of a Jewess.”
Moreover, the media, Suchowolski-Sluszny maintains — particularly social media — does not help. “Attacks on Jewish Israelis rarely appear in the news,” she said. “Only the reactions by Israel [such as last may’s Gaza war get coverage]. When there is no real explanation of why, it just feeds the antisemitism … And the circle goes around again.”
Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.