Reflective Piece by Professor Miriam Dwek

At my university we just lit the Chanukiah. Why do I feel so emotional?

I have worked at the University of Westminster since 2002 and in my time here I have met countless wonderful colleagues many of whom I call friends. I have taught and learned from our students. One of the things I love about Westminster is the range of people I meet who are from different backgrounds, cultures and places.

It’s fair to say though, that being Jewish at Westminster has not always been straightforward. I experienced a bad climate of antisemitism in the early 2000s and with colleagues, I had to raise concerns about hate speakers, segregation, the call to Jihad during Friday prayers, and more.  Most of my time I have been worried that I might be revealed as the “Jewish Lecturer” and hid my Jewishness. I would never have dreamt of revealing it beyond the very smallest circle of my closest colleagues.

Since that time, we have had a change in University Leadership. Robust policies have been implemented around free speech. External speakers invited by student societies must be pre-approved and abide by our policies.  Our Court of Governors adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The University under its Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Bonfield’s leadership has signalled in a public way their commitment to combating antisemitism. This tireless work has been undertaken by those at the top of the university and has included the invaluable support of Professor Dibyesh Anand, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Employability and Global Engagement and Chair of the University’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. With Professor Anand we have had more public events acknowledging antisemitism and challenging it in the Higher Education Sector in 2023 than in my entire time at the University before this year.

The Hamas atrocities of the 7th October and the Israel-Gaza war have led to a shocking increase in antisemitism (and Islamophobia). We know that this is affecting campus life. Emotions are heightened and many colleagues speak of a sense of abandonment from those whom we might reasonably expect support – including the local branch of our union. So, when Professor Anand suggested our planned Chanukah celebration many of us were nervous – but after much deliberation it was decided that we would go ahead.

The lighting of the fifth candle and installation of the chanukiah in the foyer of our flagship Regent Campus on Monday 11th December is symbolic – being the first time that our university has hosted such an event. Having this lit up in the foyer of our main building sends out a message of hope to all.

So, thank you to our university leadership, colleagues, JSoc and other students, Rabbi Broder, Rabbi Lew and Rabbi Sylvester who were present. Thank you also to our many friends and family who attended.  You all stepped up when many have cancelled and/or ignored the impact of antisemitism on  Jewish lives on campus. You enabled this to happen and I am so very grateful.

Professor Miriam Dwek