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James Graham as a BBYO tour Madrich

By James Graham, our new Campus Correspondent for Manchester University.

James is a Middle Eastern Studies student and Jsoc Committee member. He tweets here and blogs here.

In recent years, the University of Manchester has developed a stigma for being particularly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.

With preparation to start my second year at University underway, where I read Middle Eastern Studies, I’m sure you can imagine, the Israel-Palestinian conflict plays an integral part in my life.

With ‘operation Protective Edge’ coming to an end, I wanted to share my experiences of the conflict and my feelings about returning to a campus which has, in the past, had an unsavoury reputation.

For many Jewish sixteen year olds, the thought of going on Israel tour is the light at the end of their never-ending tunnel of GCSE exams.

However, none of the 40 tour participants that I was privileged enough to lead this Summer, would have expected their Israel tour experience to have been affected in the way that it was.

In 2010 I went on Israel tour with BBYO. This Summer, I returned, but this time I was leading a group of excited, inquisitive and unaware sixteen year olds.

With knowledge of  what previous tour leaders had advised, it is stressful at the best of times; let alone in the middle of a war.

As tour leaders, it is important to know exactly what we are doing, and when, so that any special precautions can be made.

However, with the political situation unfolding around us, our itinerary was constantly ‘subject to change.’

It was a difficult time to be in Israel, especially when in control of a group of children many of whom had not been to Israel before.

Their first impressions of the country was one of war, and unfortunately not the ones which many of us hold dear to our hearts.

Our group was very fortunate however, because during our three and a half weeks in Israel, we did not hear a single siren.

But we were still affected, because we had to stay within 90 seconds of a bomb shelter and were unable to visit Tel Aviv at all.

That being said, on a personal level, I cannot look at a single point of my tour experience as having been a low point.

I enjoyed myself throughout, which had a direct impact on the experience of my participants.

The enthusiasm and intrigue of our sixteen year olds never wavered in spite of what was happening around them.

Initially we tried to limit how much they knew of the ‘situation, but quickly discovered that they were asking questions and genuinely wanted to know the whole truth.

Something which for me as a Middle Eastern Studies student, was particularly nice to see.

If anything, the majority of our group are more likely to return to Israel on an organised trip next Summer than they would have been, had they been able to experience tour as initially intended.

This is perhaps because many of them feel as though they have missed out on what Tel Aviv has to offer, and want to see it next year.

In terms of returning to university, a campus which does not have the best of reputations in terms of Jewish and Pro-Palestinian activist relations, I am a little skeptical.

That might seem a little strange given the nature of my degree, but the Israel-Palestine conflict is only a very small part of my course, and it is what happens outside of the lecture theatres that worries me.

I am a Zionist and I am not afraid to admit it.

However, from my experiences at university last year, the passion and knowledge of anti-Zionists that I encountered, is always far greater than my own.

It is intimidating.

I sit in lectures and keep myself to myself so as to avoid any confrontational situations, something which I feel many of my colleagues also do.

But outside of the ‘safe zone’ that is our classroom, there will be demonstrations. There will be protestors.

Particularly for me as a member of the JSoc committee, I am in a position whereby people will come to me and ask questions about the situation. As though I am a representative of the Israeli government, or of the entire nation of Israel.

I could not be happier with my degree.

I enjoy my course and am doing well with my studies.

The city of Manchester is a great place to be.

Yet, whilst I cannot wait to get back to my university friends and continue with my studies, I am anxious about returning to a potentially volatile and intimidating place to be a Jewish student.

I am sure that nothing will happen and it will all just be my imagination running wild.

But I am aware that it could be a difficult time to be a Jewish student on campus, here in Manchester and across the country.