Anti-Semitism charges stir the calm waters of bucolic Oxford


For a city that has made headlines recently for its anti-Semitism problem, Oxford has a pretty laid back Jewish scene.

On a recent Friday night, dozens of recognizably Jewish families and students wearing kippahs were enjoying the afternoon sun as they strolled to one of Oxford’s two synagogues.

They converged at a modern building that houses a Jewish community center, complete with a kosher kitchen and a shul with a tall, sloped ceiling of white plaster that evokes the feeling of standing between the pages of a giant book. The same building has separate halls for Progressive congregants (Conservative and Reform) and Orthodox prayer, where services are held simultaneously.

Across Britain and Western Europe, worshippers more commonly cover their kippahs with a hat on the way to synagogue, where they are inspected or questioned – and sometimes even frisked – at the entrance by police or military. And while the Oxford Jewish Centre has some security, visitors can often walk in no questions asked.

It’s part of living in a city with hardly any violent anti-Semitic incidents, says Jake Berger, a third-year psychology student from Manchester.

“I definitely feel safer walking around with a kippah here compared to Manchester,” Berger said.

Yet despite the rarity of physical attacks on Jews, anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate speech against Israel in Oxford has invited scrutiny and cast an ugly shadow on this bastion of the British left. A picturesque university town of 160,000 residents 60 miles northwest of London, Oxford is internationally famous for its scholastic excellence and for churning out leaders in a variety of fields. The University of Oxford was ranked as the world’s fifth best in the Center for World University Rankings this year.

Students fill the many affordable pubs here until deep into the night. On weekends, lovers and hikers walk or sail along the Oxford Canal, which intersects the city’s center and stretches for 80 miles.

Especially for Jews who are openly supportive of Israel, Oxford is “an Eden with a dark underbelly,” according to Richard Black, a fourth-year history student and former member of the local JSoc, the Oxford University Jewish Society. As a pro-Israel activist, he has been called “baby killer” several times in Oxford.

He says he overheard a classmate explaining that Jews exploit the memory of the Holocaust while committing their very own Holocaust against Palestinians, adding that Jews control American finance and media. After an argument on Israel, Black recalls, a member of the academic faculty told him that the Hebrew Bible was “genocidal” and that Black provided “the best advertisement for anti-Semitism.”

Black also recalls that at one event in 2011, a pro-Palestinian activist told him that “Adolf Hitler was a good man.” She was holding a banner supporting Palestinians and speaking with Black calmly about the factors that led to Israel’s existence, including the Holocaust.

“I was shocked back then, but I have grown accustomed,” Black said.

Like many Jewish students at Oxford, Black cites the increasingly popular pejorative of “Zio” as proof of widespread but covert anti-Semitism. Short for Zionist, “it’s shorthand, used by people who hate Jews as cover for what they’re really saying: ‘Dirty Jew,’” Black said. “The true meaning lies in context: Zio media, Zio lobby – You overhear this sort of thing here.”

Last year, African rights activist Zuleyka Shahin, during a failed campaign for president of the Oxford Union, wrote on Facebook that “Judeo-Christian white men” and “Zio white men” are “complicit in the funding of wars and the social genocide of my people.”

In February, a non-Jewish Oxford student had enough of anti-Semitic chatter. Alex Chalmers, a co-chair of the university’s Labour chapter, resigned his post over the chapter’s passing of a motion endorsing Israel Apartheid Week, explaining that he no longer wanted to be associated with a framework that has “some kind of problem with Jews.”

The word “Zio,” he wrote in an op-ed explaining his move, “was part of the [Labour] club’s lexicon.” The song “Rockets over Tel Aviv” was a favorite among a certain faction of the club. Concerns of Jewish students “were ridiculed,” Chalmers added.

His resignation triggered an internal probe by Oxford’s Labour chapter which found that the Oxford University Labour Club is not institutionally anti-Semitic, but faces “difficulties” that must be addressed, the Jewish Chronicle reported Tuesday.

More significantly, it also started a chain reaction, exposing the left-wing party to intense media scrutiny in Britain that generated one of its worst public relations fiascoes in years. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn – himself branded untrustworthy by Jewish community leaders over his support for the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah – was forced to suspend at least 20 of the party’s members for making hateful remarks or statements on Jews and Israel.

Among those suspended this month were former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said Hitler supported Zionism in defending a Labour lawmaker who had been suspended earlier for making a similar statement.

Earlier this month Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, told The Times of London that Jewish students at British universities, including Oxford, face a “wall of anti-Zionism, which they feel and know to be Jew hatred.” He is scheduled to speak later this month at the Oxford Union.

For some Jewish students and faculty, the storm is “just brouhaha,” said Jonathan, a former computer science student who graduated in 2013.  He returns to Oxford regularly for JSoc activities and to attend lectures.

Jonathan, an observant Jew who did not want his last name mentioned, said: “The ones who experience anti-Semitism are the hacks,” meaning people active in student or university politics.

Most Jews in Oxford “enjoy a very good situation of safety and a robust Jewish community with excellent facilities that are actually far better than what one finds in many other British universities,” said Berger, the psychology student from Manchester. Even Black – a supporter of the Conservative Party – said that “for every negative experience” with non-Jews in Oxford, he has had “a hundred positive ones.”

While the recent scandal exposed widespread hate speech at Oxford, it also reinforced growing rejection of anti-Semitism “by the vast majority in Oxford” who understand “how criticism of Israel spills into anti-Semitism,” Black said.

Last month, four of Oxford’s six delegates to Britain’s National Student Union said their university should disaffiliate from the union following the election of Malia Bouatia as its president. Bouatia, a student at the University of Birmingham, is accused of justifying violence against Israelis and opposing a motion to condemn the Islamic State terror group lest it stigmatize Muslims. She also blamed the “Zionist-led media” for oppression in the global south.

Two British universities, Lincoln and Newcastle, this month disaffiliated with the union, citing lack of confidence in its leadership. Oxford is set to hold a disaffiliation referendum in the coming weeks.   

As for Israelis living in Oxford — there are hundreds of them, mostly students and researchers — they say they suffer no discrimination or abuse for their country of origin.

“It’s a very international place, many languages spoken, very tolerant,” said Lior Weizman, 36, a father of four who moved to Oxford last year to work as a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford specializing in medical imaging of the brain.

“I’m not a political person,” he said. “But if there are situations of people being singled out in Oxford because of their country of origin, I haven’t encountered them.”

The Ferocious Battles for Israel on Western Campuses


The Jewish State is fighting wars for its very survival against barbarous, genocidal foes like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. But far outside the Middle East ferocious battles are being fought on the campuses of the world’s great Universities for Israel’s reputation and good name. The consequences of failure are too horrible to contemplate, including the destruction of Israel’s economic lifeline through economic boycotts that germinate on campus and pass into the mainstream.

I became an Israel campus warrior in 1988 when the Lubavitcher Rebbe first sent me as Rabbi to Oxford University. A steady stream of attacks on Israel were launched by the likes of Hanan Ashrawi, Saeb Erekat, and Yasser Arafat himself. Many of these speeches took place at the world-famous Oxford Union. Our Oxford University L’Chaim Society responded with five Israeli Prime Ministers, including Binyamin Netanyahu, Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Shamir, and Ehud Olmert. We partnered with the Union for most of the speeches including mesmerizing defenses of the Jewish state delivered by a young and hyper-charismatic Bibi Netanyahu.

Since those days the battles have become ever more ferocious with the much more timid pro-Israel groups at America and Europe’s leading Universities being clobbered by Students for Justice in Palestine, Israel Apartheid Week, and BDS.

At NYU, in the heart of a city with 2.5 million Jews, SJP regularly stages die-ins that feign murder at the hands of the IDF, an Israeli apartheid wall, and serves “IDF Eviction Notices” on students to convey the brutality of the Israeli regime. In September Mahmoud Abbas received 20 standing ovations from NYU students three days before he accused Israel of genocide at the UN. Aside from my son Mendy who is an NYU undergraduate, there was not a single protest. The formal pro-Israel group on campus would later tell the New York Observer that they did not protest Abbas lest they legitimize BDS, as if there is some comparison between holding a banner outside a lecture theater and calling for the economic destruction of an innocent nation.

Last week I traveled back to Oxford with my close friend Dennis Prager for a debate on Israel versus Hamas that was easily the most hard-fought debate on Israel I have ever participated in. In an aggressive and merciless contest, our opponents in the debate threw monstrous charges that Israel is an apartheid regime, that it murders Palestinians with impunity, that Israel is a quasi-Nazi government, that Israel seeks the theft of Palestinian land and the eradication of the Palestinian people, and that Hamas is a legitimate resistance movement whose terrorism is an inevitable and organic response to Israeli colonial rule. As for America, it is like ISIS. Islamic State beheads only a few prisoners but America annihilates innocents in Pakistan each and every day with drone strikes. There is no real difference. 

Rising to speak, I looked at the huge assembled crowd of students and felt a righteous indignation bubbling up within me. My people were under attack. Whatever the odds arrayed against us, I had an opportunity to strike a blow at one of the most influential speaking platforms on earth.

Islam is a great world religion, I said, that took my people in from the Catholic expulsions of Spain and Portugal. Islam pioneered the just treatment of prisoners of under the greatest of all Muslim warriors, Sultan Saladin, who invited the Jews back to Jerusalem after his conquest in 1187. Ninety years earlier they had been slaughtered to the last woman and child after Crusader conquest. We Jews dare never forget Muslim kindness.

But Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Tonight we hear world-renowned academics justifying terrorist mass murder in Allah’s name because Palestinians feel aggrieved at Israel’s existence. When the Jews of Germany were turned into ash, soap and lampshades under Nazi rule they did not respond by blowing up German nurseries and buses. There is no excuse for terrorism. Not now. Not ever.

Islam is disgraced not only by those who murder in its name but by educated and lost souls who dignify terror with grievance. 

The Dalai Lama has been under brutal Chinese occupation since 1950 and he has never become a monster. 

As to the charges that the Palestinians live under Israeli occupation, the West Bank was illegally occupied by Jordan in 1948 yet noone ever complained of an occupation. Israel has tried since its creation to make peace with Arab states and has endangered its security with repeated territorial concessions that were met with nothing but terror attacks.  

What we learned from Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 is that should Israel withdraw from Judea and Samaria – which is not occupied but disputed – it would lead immediately to the creation of another terrorist state run by Hamas. Israel would be sandwiched between two terror launching pads intent on its total destruction.

Hamas is a genocidal organization that proudly touts its charter calling on the annihilation of Jews everywhere. It is a greater menace to Palestinians than Jews. It aids and abets honor killings of Palestinian women. It murders gay Palestinians, shoots Palestinians who dare protest its rule, ruthlessly crushes any form of criticism, and ululates when British and American civilians are murdered in Islamist terror attacks. It has ended any semblance of democratic rule in Gaza. When I arrived in Oxford tonight I did not see air force and army bases built in the heart of the College campus. No civilized nation would ever consider using students as human shields. But Hamas builds its military installations under hospitals and nurseries so that children can serve as bullet proof vests for cowardly terrorists. 

Israel is a just and righteous democracy which affords 1.5 million Muslims-Israeli citizens – almost the same number that live in Britain – greater freedoms and human rights than any Muslim country on earth. 

The world Jewish community and Israel’s non-Jewish allies need to wake up. Israel is under vicious attack at European, American, South African, Australian, and Canadian Universities. It’s a battle we can win if we step up our game on campus and begin to courageously fight back. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” served as Rabbi to Oxford University for 11 years. The international best-selling author of 30 books, he is also the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year competition. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley

Oxford students reject boycott Israel motion


A motion calling for blanket sanctions against Israel was rejected by the Oxford University Students’ Union.

According to the website of Britain’s Union of Jewish Students, the OUSU measure calling for the Oxford student union to boycott Israeli institutions, goods and produce lost by a vote of 69-10, with 15 absentions.

“It's encouraging to see that this vote reflects a student body who are willing to discuss the complexities that exist within Israel and do not see boycotting it as a viable option or avenue to discuss the conflict,” said Judith Flacks, the Union of Jewish Students' campaign director.

The motion had called for “research into higher education institutions’ contacts, relations, investment and commercial relationships that may be implicated in violating Palestinian human rights as stated by the BDS [Boycotts, Sanctions and Divestment] movement.”

Oxford medieval cemetery marked


A Jewish heritage committee in Oxford marked a medieval Jewish cemetery in the university town.

The burial site, not in use since the 1290 expulsion of the Jews from Britain, is located in the city’s Rose Garden, and was identified by Pam Manix, a historian and a member of Oxford Jewish Heritage.

The Jewish Chronicle reported Thursday that the group dedicated the granite memorial stone this week, reading Kaddish, the traditional mourner’s prayer, from a medieval siddur.

A nearby plaque in place since 1931 is covered by ivy, and its location was not as precise as the new stone.

Oxford club members resign over anti-Semitism


Four members of the Oxford University Conservative Association have resigned over anti-Semitism and snobbery.

The four senior members said they were quitting the assocation after members sang a song with a Nazi theme during an evening meeting billed as “port and policy,” the Telegraph reported.

Student members of the club are facing disciplinary action by the university and the Conservative Party. Both have launched investigations into the incident, according to the newspaper.

Two prime ministers and 13 Cabinet ministers are among the club’s alumni.

The members reportedly sang a song that begins with the line “Dashing through the Reich … killing lots of kike.”

The club has faced accusations of racism in the past. In 2000, four members were expelled for making Nazi salutes.

Circumcision critic has Board links


A woman who called for circumcision to be banned is an associate of the Board of Deputies, ” title=”TheJC.com” target=”_blank”>TheJC.com.

Working-class lads vie for Oxford in ‘History Boys’


Posner, one of eight freshly minted British high school graduates in “The History Boys,” summarizes his life in a couple of lines.

“I’m a Jew,” he says. “I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f….d.”The lines hint at the tone of the movie, which happily features the original cast of the play that smashed all kinds of award and box-office records in London, on Broadway, and even in Hong Kong and New Zealand.

The masterful drama and film script by Alan Bennett (“The Madness of King George”) is funny with an undertone of deep sadness, subtle and coarse, dense and sparkling, and offers so pyrotechnical a display of ideas and literary references that it may take two or three viewings to take it in.Most books and plays about British schoolboys are set in “public” (meaning private) upper-class institutions, such as Eton or Harrow. But in this film we encounter a group of middle- and working-class lads studying at a state-supported “grammar school” in a drab industrial town of the 1980s in the north of England.

However, the school’s ambitious headmaster is driven to ready his boys for the examination that will admit them to Oxford on scholarships. Two teachers vie to prepare the eight bright lads for the assault on the pinnacle of British education, and their clashing personalities, philosophies and pedagogical approaches are at the heart of the story.

One is the rotund, grey-haired Hector, who teases, bullies and inspires the students with his own passionate love of literature and art and his fondness for old Hollywood movies and patriotic World War II songs.

While culture and learning for learning’s sake are all very well, to impress the Oxford admission board requires a more focused and pragmatic teacher, figures the headmaster.

His choice is Irwin — all characters are known by their last names — a young man who knows all about test scores and how to impress Oxford dons. History, Irwin says, “is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance,” best played out by taking a generally accepted proposition, inverting it, and finding the necessary proof for the inversion.

For instance, the way to impress the examiners with your original thinking on, say, the Holocaust, is to put it “in proportion” by comparing it to previous historical slaughters.

Others have their own definitions of history. To the sole female instructor, history is “women following behind men with a bucket.” To Rudge, the most athletic boy who’ll get into Oxford on a rugby scholarship, “History is one f…..g thing after another.”

Yet, “History Boys” is very far from the happy-school-days-on-green-playing-fields kind of remembrance.

Hector, the devoted teacher, gropes his boys while giving them rides on his motorcycle, but he is more to be pitied than scorned, according to Richard Griffiths, who portrays the role as the play’s central figure.

“Hector is a man whom love has passed by, who is trying to reach out to someone,” Griffiths said during a number of face-to-face interviews with director Nicholas Hytner and three of the cast members.

Griffiths’ performance is brilliant, but, to this biased observer, the character hitting closest to home is that of Posner. In the end, he proves to be the only one of Hector’s boys “who took everything to heart, remembers everything he has ever taught … the songs, the poems, the sayings, the endings; the words of Hector never forgotten,” the female instructor says.

For two-and-a-half years, on the world’s stages and now on screen, the 17-year-old Posner has been played by Samuel Barnett, who is about six years older than his character and a veteran of Britain’s National Theatre.

Anticipating my first question, Barnett opened our interview with: “My father is Jewish, and his parents came from Poland. He married my mum, a Quaker, while both were in college, which made him the black sheep of his family.”

Barnett has a lilting voice and some of the film’s most pleasant moments have him singing such Hector favorites as “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

“I’ve played Posner 483 times, and the acting doesn’t scare me, but the singing terrifies me at each performance,” he said.

Barnett’s part-Jewish background never came up during auditions and had nothing to do with his getting the role, he believes.

“I’ve never experienced anti-Semitism, but when we moved from London to a small town on the northeast coast, my dad was quite worried, even paranoid, about it,” Barnett recalled.

The Holocaust was not discussed in the parental home, and the first time Barnett learned about it was as a 14-year-old student in a class about World War II.

His real education, though, came through Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.”

“I watched it six times,” Barnett said. “It absolutely floored me. I was devastated.”

“The History Boys” opens at the Lammle Theatres’ Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica on Nov. 21, at the Town Center 5 in Encino on Dec. 1, and at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena on Dec. 8.

Read All About It


The very thought of editors of Jewish publications gathering in an Oxford manor house cries out for a Rodney Dangerfield punch line.

Yarnton Manor was once a holding of the Spencer-Churchill family, as in Princess Diana and Sir Winston. Juxtapose its dark wood-paneled rooms and sweeping Jacobean gardens with a bunch of hunch-shouldered journalists whose profession is rarely accorded much respect inside their communities, much less among landed gentry — you get the picture. It was easy for me to sit in the manor’s 17th-century great room and imagine generations of Spencers and Churchills cartwheeling in their graves.

But a decade ago, the house was purchased by a Jewish family who turned it over to the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The American Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) International Centre for Community Development chose it as a convenient midway point for a first-ever gathering of 13 editors and publishers of Jewish publications from North America, Europe and Israel.

The early September meeting was the brainchild of Alberto Senderey, the JDC’s director of international community development. Senderey is a model Jewish professional, and not just because he invited me as one of five Americans included for the four-day symposium in beautiful Oxford.

An energetic, optimistic burst of Argentine energy, he recognized that Jewish media have a unique and underappreciated perspective on Jewish communal life. In increasingly dispersed and diverse communities, Jewish newspapers and magazines can serve as virtual community centers, a place where all voices can be heard and where, in the best of circumstances, all a community’s important issues and problems examined.

Jews have a complicated relationship with the Jews who write about them. On the one hand, they want us to do the stuff of journalism — gather and present news accurately without fear or bias, hold leaders and institutions accountable and present a diversity of opinions, regardless of their popularity.

On the other hand, they want us to do all this without offending them, attacking them, upsetting their fundraising or giving press to points of view they despise. The relationship is often rocky and inherently uncomfortable. We are outsiders writing about outsiders — the Jews of the Jews.

But the JDC, which works with endangered and emergent Jewish communities from South America to Siberia, understands that for many Jews, the local Jewish press is their first or even main connection to Jewish life. In a time when traditional forms of Jewish expression — synagogues, JCCs, federations — have struggled to retain the loyalty of a new generation, Jewish papers and magazines continue to thrive.

Consider this nugget mined from the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey: For the majority of Jews in the vaunted 35-44 age range — the ones whose child-rearing will set a new generation on the path toward Jewish life — the No. 1 nonreligious Jewish activity in which they engage is reading a Jewish periodical.

In this age group, 47 percent of Jews belong to a synagogue, 45 percent contribute to nonfederation Jewish charities, 25 percent contribute to their local federation. But these numbers are easily surpassed by the 68 percent who read a Jewish newspaper or magazine.

To some degree, this statistic reflects the general promise of niche publications in an increasingly fractured media market. New Times’ multimillion dollar purchase this week of former rival LA Weekly’s parent company, Village Voice Media Inc., is but one example.

But another possible explanation for this astonishing statistic — how likely is it that 68 percent of Jews would agree on anything? — is that newspapers and periodicals offer a low barrier of entry to Jewish life. There’s no membership, no dress code, no judging. In some cases, as with this paper, there is zero cost, as well. That means people who want to affirm or explore their connection to Judaism can do so easily, every week, at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

The fact that young people aren’t joining Jewish organizations doesn’t mean they’re dropping out, said conference participant Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week in New York. “They’re looking for new ways to identify.”

For a new generation of Jews, the Holocaust and even the Six-Day War are ancient history. The touchstones of Jewishness have shifted, and media outlets, which can change content monthly, weekly or, on the Internet, hourly, are poised to adapt more quickly than synagogues or large organizations. That makes these long-undervalued participants in Jewish communal life more important than ever.

Not surprisingly, Joshua Newman, the editor of the controversial, youth-skewed Heeb, was one of the editors invited. His magazine has successfully explored the intersection of Jewish and secular culture, and has attracted a large audience of the even more elusive 18- to 35-year-old Jews. It has done so, in part, by tweaking or ignoring coverage that traditional Jewish magazines emphasize: Israel, the Holocaust, organized Jewish life.

One thing we editors agreed on was that the nature of our profession is, like much in the Jewish world, changing.

In the not-so-recent past, much of what we wrote about, even as exposes, was parochial compared to the general press: which Jewish organization did what to whom, the latest from Israel, the most notable Jew of the week (astronaut, movie star, baseball player — you name it).

But beginning with the front-page news of the Oslo accords, Jewish news became international news. Certainly after the election of George W. Bush and the terror attack of 9/11, the coverage of faith, ethnic identity and how they dovetail with the world at large took on a vital importance.

“The Jewish story became the national story,” said J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward. “Religion reporting became central to all reporting.”

The intifada and the subsequent vilification of Israel in much of the mainstream press only upped the ante for Jewish papers. “We became a source for more accurate reporting,” said Meir Waintroter, who edits L’Arche, a Parisian-based monthly.

In fact, the reality of anti-Semitism in our daily professional life was one glaring difference between the American editors at the conference and their European and Eastern European counterparts. We Americans rarely look over our shoulders to see which non-Jewish enemies will take issue with what we print. For some of our colleagues, such trepidation is a fact of life.

When it comes to such issues as Israel and anti-Semitism, Jewish papers are able to provide depth and context that mainstream papers sometimes overlook.

But here’s the balancing act. Just as we recognize our unique role in providing deeper coverage of issues Jews care about, including unsavory aspects of our own communities, there’s also an element of outreach to our mission. If we define “Jewish” too narrowly, we risk alienating large segments of our current and potential readership.

“If we narrow ourselves to issues that are only Jewish defined,” said one editor, “we fail to appeal to readers who feel that Jews have a universal message. We end up creating a Jewish community where most Jews don’t belong.”

And there are not just a few of those Jews. Originally the youth-oriented magazine Heeb sought to “speak to an alienated voice” of disassociated and disconnected young Jews, said Heeb editor Newman. In so doing, the magazine effectively created a new Jewish community.

That, ultimately, is the threefold power of the Jewish press: to strengthen Jewish community through the practice of journalism, to extend the opportunity of Jewish communal life to as many people as possible and, not incidentally, to provide a first draft of Jewish history itself.

Or, as my fellow Yarnton Manor pal Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”