On 7 October 2023, Hamas, the Palestinian group, launched an attack on Israel. As reported by CNN, “More than 1,400 Israelis were killed in the assault, and more than 240 were taken hostage, according to account by Israeli officials.” Since then, Israel has responded with a series of military attacks, cut off access to water, food and fuel in Gaza and killed over 15,000 individuals, according to Gaza Health authorities.
Although the Israel-Palestine conflict broke out in early October, it was not until Wednesday, 25 October, that the University of York’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Charlie Jeffery, emailed staff, students, and alumni addressing the crisis. Jeffery began the email by disclosing why he had not yet reached out about the situation, stating: “I wanted first to make sure that I or my colleagues had had the opportunity to engage with those most directly affected by the conflict.” He continued: “Universities are and must, especially at moments like this, be places in which difficult issues can be discussed openly, in good faith and with mutual respect. York must live up to that ideal.”
Within the same email, the Vice Chancellor also expressed the need for the University to “reject any forms of racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, abuse, intimidation and harassment.” Regarding this element of the email, Nouse asked the University, “What is your response to instances of Islamophobia and anti-semitism rumoured to be affecting students at the University, as addressed in Professor Charlie Jeffery’s email?” In response, a University spokesperson replied: “We need to be very clear that acts of racism or harassment are totally unacceptable. The Vice-Chancellor has condemned any form of racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, abuse, intimidation, and harassment. It will not be tolerated...”
The University spokesperson also commented that “Universities are and must, especially at moments like this, be places where difficult issues can be discussed openly, in good faith and with mutual respect. We are listening to staff and students to understand how best we can facilitate these opportunities to enable respectful and reasoned debate on this conflict, which we know is raw and emotive and which has such deep roots.”
Nouse then inquired about what the University of York was doing to support students affected by the Israel-Palestine crisis, to which a University spokesperson responded: “We are spending time listening to students, including understanding concerns and how best we can respond, with an emphasis on how we can collectively support each other – as a community of compassion and mutual respect. This includes speaking with our student societies, academic departments, our Student Unions and Colleges to help everyone have their voices heard. In doing so, we especially want to support those most impacted by the conflict, including staff, students, and student societies closely connected to the region. This approach allows the University to understand the needs and concerns of those directly affected and offer the appropriate support.”
In light of the crisis, several societies at the University of York have united to organise fundraisers, demonstrating their concern for all those affected by the situation. Iqra, a member of the University of York’s (ISOC), spoke openly about her society’s efforts to fundraise for innocent civilians in Palestine. Iqra began by informing Nouse, “For me personally, I haven’t seen the University advocating for either side.” But, she felt the University had been “silent on the situation that’s happening in Palestine.”
However, Iqra acknowledged the University’s provision of welfare support for individuals affected by the conflict and informed Nouse that ISOC has been allowed “to perform fundraisers and events to support Palestine with no issue for their society.” Iqra expressed the fundraisers have enabled the society to collectively articulate their right for “freedom of expression to advocate for Palestine.” Crucially, funds raised have gone towards charities, including Medical Aid for Palestine.
Another student at the University, external to the society, commented they felt emotionally impacted by the Israel-Palestine crisis and thinks that more needs to be done regarding the number of communications issued by the University to students. This includes the support offered to those affected by the conflict, both directly and indirectly. Furthermore, the student highlighted their opinion that the University’s response to the Palestine-Israel crisis has been much slower than its response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Nouse also asked the University of York’s Jewish Society (YorkJSoc) to provide a statement on the situation. YorkJSoc replied: “Our thoughts and prayers are, as always, with all those affected by the current situation in Israel and Palestine, and we mourn all lives lost as a result of this conflict. We hope the University continues to provide support to those both directly and indirectly affected much more proactively. We appreciate that the University took the time to consult with relevant student groups, but the support provided to the wider student body was slow to come and insufficient, with many in our community feeling like the University has not offered them support or acted responsibly. Although we understand the need to hold discussions on the right approach, ultimately, the relative lack of response has left many feeling disillusioned and unsafe.”
The society went on to state their disappointment regarding the University’s “lack of urgency in releasing a statement” and “failure to directly condemn the terrorist attacks on 7 October 2023 and the continued loss of life in Gaza.” Furthermore, they were appalled “by the University’s treatment of those who are exercising their right to peaceful protest and their failure to respect free speech” indicating not all students have been able to express their views freely.
However, YorkJSoc voiced support towards the University’s “zero-tolerance policy towards prejudice and hate speech.” To conclude, YorkJSoc stated: “We hope that the University becomes more active in addressing any forms of hate speech and that they help to make York a safe place for all regardless of faith or ethnicity. We would encourage everyone at this [time] to be sensitive to the emotional distress that the conflict has placed on many students at York and to strive for peace for all.”
Finally, Nouse asked YUSU President Pierrick Rodger to comment on the crisis. Rodger stated the University encourages those affected to consult the University’s independent Advice and Support Centre, which can signpost students to the support available.
The University said, “It is right that we spent time listening to students, including understanding concerns and how best we can respond, with an emphasis on how we can collectively support each other - as a community of compassion and mutual respect. This approach allows the University to understand the needs and concerns of those affected and offer the appropriate support.”
The full email sent by Professor Charlie Jeffery, addressed in this article can be accessed here. Please see the University's dedicated page responding to the events in Israel, Gaza and the Middle East for further information and support.