Last week a mob of about 100 students forced Jewish students to flee Exeter university campus. Anti-Israel activists surrounded a stall set up by the Jewish students who wanted to give their take on the Gaza conflict. The activists then tried to throw red fruit squash, to mimic blood, at the Israeli flag on the stall. It ended up going all over the Jewish students instead. Eventually the ferocity of the mob forced the Jewish students to abandon the stall and flee the campus.

Sadly this was not an isolated incident. In Britain, as on university campuses elsewhere, violence and intimidation by anti-Israel protestors is becoming a frequent occurrence. In February 2023, an Arab-Israeli peace activist, Yoseph Haddad, was chased off Nottingham campus. Protesters even ran into oncoming traffic in an attempt to ambush his car. This February the Jewish chaplain at Leeds University, Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, and his family were forced into hiding as a result of death threats. Activists objected to his period of military service in Israel. Hillel House – a centre for Jewish students at the university – was also defaced.

Meanwhile, police are investigating two racially aggravated incidents alleged to have taken place at anti-Israel protests at Birmingham University, one of which was unauthorised. Banners were raised at the protests with slogans such as “Zionists off campus”. It is also alleged that protesters chanted “Israelis can burn in hell” and “death to Zionists”. University authorities released statements to the effect that they were consulting with student groups such as the Jewish and Islamic Societies. The statements also say that while the university upholds free speech in principle there is an ongoing police investigation into two potential racially aggravated incidents .

The university’s branch of the Universities and Colleges Union (BUCU) released statements on 14 February and 26 February arguing that the mention of a police investigation was a tactic to intimidate staff and to suppress free speech. It also argued that demonstrations on campus are anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic. 

BUCU’s statements do not convince. First, the slogan “Zionists off our campus” is itself anti-free speech as it seeks to prevent anyone arguing the Zionist cause from making their case. That goes directly against the ideal of universities as places for reasoned debate in the pursuit of truth. Instead anti-Israel campaigners often take the hypocritical stance of claiming free speech for themselves while suppressing the speech of others. The uncomfortable truth is that the recent rash of violence against Jewish students takes the “Zionists off campus” slogan to its logical conclusion.

Second, in its first statement, BUCU admits that some students tweeted the “Zionists off our campus” slogan in the hope of creating a furore. That being the case it would be negligent of the police not to investigate. This is also relevant when considering BUCU’s point about double standards. In its 26 February statement, it claimed complicated forms had to be filled out to invite speakers (presumably anti-Israel ones) which, it says can be denied without any reason being given. In contrast, an event featuring Noah Shufutinsky, a Jewish, African-American rapper and Zionist activist, faced no such obstacles. The difference is that Shufutinsky had no track record of advocating violence whereas violence has featured at anti-Israel demonstrations. BUCU’s argument that security staff who were present at the protests did nothing so there is nothing to investigate is not conclusive. Nor is it entirely to the point as events before and after the protest would also need to be investigated.

Finally, BUCU’s claim that there is a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is at best tendentious. That is especially the case if by anti-Zionism it means a denial of Israel’s right to exist. It is true that anti-Zionist beliefs were recently found to be a protected characteristic under British anti-discrimination law. It should  be obvious to anyone that the collapse of Israel would cause terrible harm to the Jewish people as a whole. For example, the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence service, recently thwarted a terrorist network planning attacks on Jews in Brazil. Some security experts say attacks were planned in Argentina and Paraguay too. Anti-Zionists might not intend to be anti-Semitic but in practice they do harbour anti-Semitic beliefs. The fact that some Jews are also anti-Zionists does not alter that reality.

If anti-Israel activists were confident the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism could be made they should allow debates on the matter to be held. The fact that pro-Israeli Jewish students on campus face violence and intimidation suggests the anti-Zionists lack the confidence to make their case.

Just what can be achieved when debate takes the place of violence is illustrated  by establishment of the Edinburgh University Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue Society (EUPIDS) It is run by co-equal presidents, one identifying with Israel and the other with Palestine. The society ran a conference featuring peer reviewed presentations and papers from a wide range of disciplines. It featured diverse perspectives  and views on Israel/Palestine written with nuance and in a spirit of respect. The EUPIDS initiative did spread to other universities including Cardiff, Bristol and the London School of Economics, though it seems to have faded. Nevertheless it is an example of what could be achieved where there is a will to find a constructive way forward.

The ministry of education has written to university vice-chancellors reminding them the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Act only protects free speech within the law. Those students who cross the line into harassment and intimidation should be dealt with firmly. If necessary they should be expelled from the university or even referred to the Prevent counter-extremism programme.

University authorities’ response to recent assaults on Jewish students is a key test of how seriously they take the scourge of anti-Semitism.

Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

PHOTO: "Laver Building, University of Exeter - - 148746" by Pierre Terre is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

Under these circumstances I am keen not only to maintain this site but to extend its impact. That means raising funds.

The Radicalism of fools has three subscription levels: Free, Premium and Patron.

Free subscribers will receive all the articles on the site and links to pieces I have written for other publications. Anyone can sign up for free.

Premium subscribers will receive all the benefits available to free subscribers plus my Quarterly Report on Anti-Semitism (from April 2024). They will also receive a signed copy of my Letter on Liberty on Rethinking Anti-Semitism and access to an invitee-only Radicalism
of fools Facebook group. These are available for a 17% discounted annual subscription of £100 or a monthly fee of £10 (or the equivalents in other currencies).

Patron subscribers will receive the benefits of Premium subscribers plus a one-to-one meeting with Daniel. This can either be face-to-face if in London or online. This is available for a 17% discounted annual subscription of £250 or a monthly fee of £25 (or the equivalents in other currencies).

You can sign up to either of the paid levels with any credit or debit card. Just click on the “subscribe now” button below to see the available options for subscribing.

You can of course unsubscribe at any time from any of these subscriptions by clicking “unsubscribe” at the foot of each email.

If you have any comments or questions please contact me at