Facing 2024 as a Jewish student leader

A woman in a hijab ties a poster to a fence.
A student attaches posters in support of Palestine at Melbourne (Students for Palestine).

AUJS president NOAH LOVEN considers how Jewish students need to be supported as they confront the growing hostility to any association with Israel on Australian campuses. 

As universities resume across Australia, there’s a palpable sense of unease and apprehension among Jewish students.

The recent surge in antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric, bolstered by the October 7 massacre and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war, has placed Jewish students at the epicentre of a storm in Australia over the Middle East.

Anti-Israel protests, chants such as “globalise the intifada”, and even the glorification of the horrors of October 7 as “resistance” have become a fixture at Australian universities.

I have spent enough time in the archives to know the Jewish students of today are not the first generation to experience this.

Antisemitism has been a persistent shadow over many Jewish students’ campus experiences and AUJS has always had a pivotal role in nurturing Jewish life on campus and fostering a sense of community despite outbursts of hate. Headlines like ‘Antisemitism back on campus’ from a 1986 article penned by an AUJS leader could have been written today.

But the deep anger around Gaza has propelled Israel-Palestine to the top of the student political agenda, threatening Jewish students’ sense of security in a way which may be unprecedented.

At a National Union of Students (NUS) annual conference in December, where elected student representatives from universities across the country converged, AUJS members attended as observers. Any student advocacy group can attend the NUS conference. Few do, but AUJS has done so in recent years to provide the Jewish perspective on issues including antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment at universities.

This time, we were confronted by a four-day conference hijacked by antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric. There were many motions condemning Israel but making no mention of the October 7 massacre, the sexual violence against Jewish women, or the kidnapping of Israeli civilians. Israel was repeatedly accused of apartheid and genocide and NUS members chanted “From the river to the sea”.

As Jewish students we felt unsafe, subjected to wholesale condemnations that meet the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

This experience was disheartening not only because of what it told us about NUS members, who are elected to student councils, but also as a glimpse of what university life could become in 2024 for Jewish students.

Considering these challenges, AUJS’s mission assumes even greater significance. Jewish students need three kinds of psychological resources to survive and thrive in this difficult environment: empowerment, relationship-building, and community.

Empowerment through education and skill-building is essential to ensure as many Jewish students as possible are equipped to respond to anticipated attacks. AUJS is partnering with Australian Jewish Funders and the Jewish Community Appeal to provide Orientation Week training workshops for Jewish student leaders in Sydney and Melbourne. AUJS leaders from other cities will be flown to one of the sessions.

These workshops will give AUJS leaders hands-on training in advocacy, combating antisemitism, and mental health. Similar programs will continue throughout the year to ensure that Jewish students are equipped with the knowledge and tools to foster a sense of confidence, agency, and pride, ready to meet the challenges of university life in 2024 and beyond.

AUJS will also intensify our efforts to build relationships with university administrations, non-Jewish students, and key stakeholders to foster understanding and support for Jewish students in our struggle against antisemitism. We aim to create more inclusive and aware campus environments where antisemitic sentiments and ignorant views of Israel are combated from within non-Jewish spaces.

A good example of this work is the AUJS Israel Mission (AIM), which takes non-Jewish politically involved students with AUJS leaders on a 10-day trip to Israel and the West Bank to learn about the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These students, when they are back on campus, have called out antisemitism in their own activist circles on campuses and have become allies with Jewish students.

We must also ensure the threat of antisemitism does not hijack our other activities. The strength of AUJS has always been in its community – a diverse, vibrant, and engaged group of Jewish students united by their shared heritage and values. Since my first day at university, AUJS has been a crucial part of my life – a place for friendship and memory-making where I can enrich my Jewish identity.

In times of rising ostracism because of antisemitism, the importance of bringing Jewish students together cannot be understated. AUJS’s mission is to unite Jewish students through meaningful events on campus, regional, and national levels. From weekly lunches on campus to Purim parties and political events, we will provide a space for Jewish students to unite, celebrate our culture, and proudly be Jewish.

To Jewish students throughout Australia and New Zealand, whether you have been an AUJS member, have never been to an AUJS event or are a first-year university student navigating your next stage of life, know that despite the challenges and uncertainty in 2024, campuses are places where you can be empowered in your Jewish identity and experience a sense of belonging.

When you spot an AUJS stall during orientation week, know that we are a community ready to uplift and empower you. Together, we will not only confront the challenges of rising antisemitism but will also build a stronger, more inclusive future for all Jewish students.