UK students call on university to suspend rabbi who served in Israeli army

Students at a university in northern England are staging a sit-in to call for the suspension of a Jewish chaplain who has served in the Israeli army during the war on Gaza.

Dozens are occupying part of the Parkinson Building of the University of Leeds, the latest outbreak of action after weeks of protests against Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch.

Deutsch, an Israeli citizen, was called up as a reservist for two months late last year.

The nature of his military participation is unclear but has nevertheless raised ethical questions.

Deutsch’s service was legal, but given the more than 30,000 Palestinians killed in the besieged strip, many are concerned.

“We don’t want anyone who has gone to fight in a genocidal conflict to come back and be welcomed with open arms,” said one student organiser, who requested anonymity, fearing reprisal from the university.

Deutsch has been chaplain at Leeds and several British universities since 2021. He began his military service in November as part of a mobilisation effort after Hamas’s attacks in southern Israel on October 7, which killed at least 1,139 people.

city, UK. DD MMM, 2023. Pictured left to right, (persons) at (event). Credit Milo Chandler/Alamy Live News
Students protesters slept overnight in a grand Parkinson Building which is iconic to the University of Leeds [Milo Chandler]

While Israel says it wants to wipe out the Palestinian group, which governs Gaza, prominent rights groups and some world leaders have called for a ceasefire, given the unprecedented humanitarian toll.

Most of those killed in Gaza have been women and children.

Students have rallied week on week, calling for Deutsch to be expelled. Organisers said more than 100 have joined the latest sit-in, which began on Thursday afternoon and was continuing at the time of writing.

A university chaplain is meant to support students and staff in practising their faith and offer pastoral care.

Farhat Yaqoob, the university’s Muslim chaplain for nine years, quit when Deutsch resumed his role on campus, saying her principles no longer “aligned” with the institution.

The fallout made headlines when Deutsch and his family were moved to a safe location on police advice after alleged death and rape threats that were revealed by the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.

“You can criticise Israel’s actions against Hamas,” Hadley Freeman, an author and journalist, wrote in The Times. “But to terrorise a rabbi for briefly serving in the [Israeli military] in the immediate aftermath of October 7 shows that, for some people, there is no act of anti-Jewish terrorism so bad that Jews are allowed to fight back.”

“Free Palestine” was also graffitied on a building for Jewish students at the university.

“We totally condemn the anti-Semitic abuse and threats directed towards the chaplain and his family – such attacks on any individual are unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” the university said in a statement last month.

Robert Halfon, a Conservative politician who met Deutsch and his wife in the wake of the threats, said some UK universities were turning a “blind eye to extremism on campus or at worst just appeasing it”.

Calls to suspend ties with Deutsch

In a statement leaked to Al Jazeera, the trade union representing academics and staff at the University of Leeds said it has urged the university to suspend ties with Deutsch after passing a motion on Monday.

One employee revealed that more than 90 academics attended the meeting. They requested anonymity because university officials have warned academics against speaking to the press about the Jewish chaplain.

An online petition demanding Deutsch’s dismissal, meanwhile, has gathered more than 12,000 signatures.

“Deutsch does seem to be an apologist for the [Israeli army], sugar-coating its indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza and its starvation tactics,” said Kenneth Roth, an activist and the former executive director of Human Rights Watch.

But while his views may be “reprehensible”, his position at Leeds is “probably, and should be, protected by academic freedom”, he added.

“One’s political views should not be grounds for dismissal.”

city, UK. DD MMM, 2023. Pictured left to right, (persons) at (event). Credit Milo Chandler/Alamy Live News
Dozens of students have protested against the University of Leeds as it repels calls to suspend the controversial rabbi [Milo Chandler]

A leaked video from a student society’s WhatsApp group in November showed the rabbi apparently in Israel performing celebratory dances. In another, Deutsch is seen describing Israel’s offensive as emboldened “with the utmost morality and good ethics”.

Yaz Ahmed, an organiser with the Leeds Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “If it was a Muslim chaplain [who served in an army abroad], they would categorically not be allowed back in the country. … There is a massive double standard at play here.”

At the time of publishing, neither the University Jewish Chaplaincy, the charity that employs Deutsch and granted him personal leave to serve in the conflict, nor the Leeds Universities Jewish Society, had responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Ahmed decried what she called “systemic issues” involving the university’s position on Israel-Palestine, pointing to its partnerships with BAE Systems, the United Kingdom’s biggest defence contractor, which has helped build the F-35 fighter jets used by the Israeli military.

In December, as Israel’s war on Gaza levelled several Palestinian universities to the ground, the University of Leeds announced a research initiative with Israeli universities.

The campus protests come at a time of rising reports of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Britain as the Middle East war rages.

Some Muslim students at Leeds say they have yet to see a response to anti-Muslim hatred.

“I’ve got so many reports of students feeling unsafe,” said Sana Malik, president of the Leeds Islamic Society.

She said she first alerted university officials to reports of harassment on campus in November.

University authorities “haven’t formally addressed the complainants”, she said.

A university spokesperson told Al Jazeera that “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are equally abhorrent and have no place at the University of Leeds” and it was “saddened” Yaqoob had stepped down.

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