On Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch’s comments: an appeal for intersectional activism
It’s important that we put Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch’s comments and the backlash against them in their proper context.
This editorial presents my personal views of the current controversy surrounding the recent departure of Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch to serve as a reservist in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). I will attempt to bring some clarity to the situation and to provide some food for thought for student activism across Leeds University and Leeds University Union. All views and opinions below are my own, and do not in any way reflect LUU’s or the University’s positions on this matter.
What has happened?
Firstly, I should provide some key context both to clarify the events leading up to the controversy as well as the underlying sentiments that are propelling it. This will be important for the following section.
Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch is the Orthodox Jewish chaplain for a number of universities in Yorkshire (including Leeds) who recently took a leave of absence to serve as a reservist in the IDF. This comes amid the backdrop of the unfolding Israeli military assault against Hamas in Gaza, a key element of which has been airstrikes. These have not infrequently resulted in Gazan civilian casualties, which have consequently received marked criticism from groups including the United Nations and Amnesty International.
The controversy around Deutsch stems from a recently leaked video in which he states the following:
If you know the real story of what’s been going on here in Israel over the last thousands of years and over the last hundred years, no one could deny that Israel is dealing with this war with the utmost morality and good ethics. And that’s what I think a lot of the nations are hearing and can learn from this. There’s so much confusion going on, and it’s so clear that there is evil and there is good. And what Israel is trying to do is destroy the evil, which is the most moral thing possible. With also trying to deal with the civilians in Gaza in the best way possible.
The leaked comments came at a time when many Leeds University students were already feeling anxious and hopeless at the deaths of civilians in Gaza. An important source of these anxieties has been the perceived callousness on the part of many Israeli and international officials regarding this issue. Hearing similar comments from someone closely linked to the University (especially someone charged with pastoral responsibilities and with safeguarding the most vulnerable in the community) was shocking and infuriating to many of these students.
The huge wave of official complaints that I am aware both the University and LUU have been receiving about Deutsch’s comments demonstrate that students (to say nothing about staff) are taking his comments seriously and see them as a direct threat to their well-being and safety. This is evidenced by the separate statements on the matter released by the Palestine Solidarity Group, the Islamic Society, and the Ahlul-Bayt Society. In the eyes of Palestinian students (which include Christians, Muslims, and those of no faith) as well as students sympathetic to Palestine, Deutsch’s comments represent a highly serious form of misconduct that warrants the University cutting any and all ties to Deutsch.
The University has gone into overdrive to insist that Deutsch was not an official employee of Leeds University, being rather employed by the Union of Jewish Chaplains (UJC). Consequently, the University maintains that it has no jurisdiction over Deutsch, and that he is therefore free to act as he wishes. But this has done little to quiet the persistent calls demanding that the University definitively distance itself from Deutsch, including by removing his access to University grounds and services.
Making sense of the controversy
Firstly, it is worth addressing the matter of Deutsch’s association with Leeds University. While a chaplain may not be a regular employee of the University, their pastoral role as a spiritual guide and support for students means that they can still have a remarkable impact on campus, both on the students under their remit and on the wider student body. We usually think of this impact in positive terms, but I think this controversy has highlighted that this impact can sometimes be negative as well.
I believe that it is important to acknowledge Deutsch’s invaluable support to Jewish students; as LUU’s Faith Rep, I cannot in good conscience deny this. And I can simultaneously acknowledge that his recent comments have negatively impacted upon the mental well-being of many students. This is not a case of “buts” or “ifs”; both situations exist at the same time.
I believe that it is important to recognise that Deutsch is operating from a position of pain. And not only him; he is joined by Israeli and Jewish students across the University who have been rocked by Hamas’s killings of Israeli civilians last month, and the subsequent antisemitic attacks that have been happening in the wake of Israel’s retaliation in Gaza. It’s important to recognise this fact.
It is also imperative to bear in mind that most Jewish students would not see Deutsch’s comments in remotely the same light as most Palestinian and pro-Palestine students. According to a 2015 survey of British Jews, while many Jews would not describe themselves as Zionist, most still support the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland (a key tenet of the Zionist movement). This is reflected in comments told to me by a Jewish student, who insisted that Deutsch was “an innocent man”. So within this line of thinking, Deutsch’s comments are framed as a justified commitment to Jewish self-defense in light of threats to Israeli and Jewish safety.
But being in pain does not excuse a person from enabling pain to others. It also does not justify simplistic binaries about good and evil. On the contrary, such binaries can be extremely dangerous.
In his anguish over Israeli and Jewish lives lost, Deutsch may not have realised that he risks providing a moral justification for the inhumane treatment of Gazans (and Palestinians more widely). The key lies in his argument that Israel is necessarily acting in the most moral way possible because of its fight against “evil”. If Israel has the undeniable moral high ground, with no “buts” and “ifs”, there would be no ability at all to engage in any kind of criticism of the Israeli operation in Gaza. Deutsch’s quip (seeming to come almost as an afterthought in his comments) that Israel is “trying to deal with the civilians in Gaza in the best way possible” only enforces this idea, because the “best way” is never identified; it is left up to Israel to decide what that is.
I believe that there is good cause for us to be cautious about morality claims concerning Israel’s battle against “evil”, because there is a genuine risk of crossing a dangerous line here. It is one that many of us ought to recognise, because we have seen it before: in the U.S. response following the terror attacks of 9/11. Then, as now, “evil” was the main target, being openly cited by President George W. Bush as the justification for the fight against Al-Qaeda as well as for the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But the issue of who was being steamrolled and murdered along this path to defeat evil (especially innocent civilians) was only thought about in retrospect if it was considered at all.
In this controversy, I believe that there is a key learning moment for liberation movements. Specifically, this episode highlights the importance of intersectional activism. It is possible to be very correct about one issue and to woefully miss the mark on another. A key example from history is first-wave feminism: absolutely committed to sexual equality but simultaneously viciously racist.
Similarly, Deutsch’s commitment to Jewish safety is beyond reproach; it is perfectly reasonable for Jews to require a safe area from which to exist and develop. It is possible to draw parallels here to the similar need for Muslim safety, which is another critical issue that (as in the Jewish experience) has frequently been inadequately addressed. However, Deutsch’s comments run into problems when they seem to prioritise Jewish security at the cost of Palestinian humanity. If your discourse enables the justification of civilian death, something is wrong. It is in this that concerns are being raised.
There is no reason why we cannot simultaneously emphasise both Palestinian and Israeli humanity together. If you are to argue that Hamas’s killing of Israeli civilians broke the Geneva Convention or other international laws of war, would not the Israeli killing of Gazan civilians equally break those laws? If you appeal to international law, you cannot reasonably condemn the first case while also justifying the second one (and vice versa). If we say that we are committed to justice, then we must be committed to it fairly; otherwise, we risk breeding injustice through our activism.
Having spoken about being fair and just, I will practise it by pointing out that pro-Palestine voices can also fall short of an intersectional focus on humanity. For instance, I’ve observed far too many activists seeming to gloat at the deaths of Israeli civilians (who, I will remind everyone, are still civilians under international law, regardless of whether that same law considers them to be illegal settlers. This does not negate the violent role of settlers in Israeli policy against Palestinians; both situations can and do exist together). But this does not mean that Palestinian issues are without merit; they are in fact extremely important because they (like Jewish and Israeli issues) are human issues.
Intersectionality Is an aspect of University-based activism that I believe must be improved across the board. We all have to work on ensuring that our activism is intersectional, always.
A call to the University for action
The University of Leeds has an ethical duty to safeguard all of its students. And it is sadly failing them now. If the University administration believes that a monotone of “copy and paste” responses will calm the fears and anxieties of the students in their care, they are beyond being deluded; they are living in a fantasy land. Because these kinds of responses do not calm; in fact, they have the exact opposite effect.
If Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, and Muslim students are all feeling collectively unsafe at once, it points to the structural incapability of the University to perform its ethical imperative to safeguard. At a time when both antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks and rhetoric are on the rise in the UK (and have regrettably occurred among us as well), the University of Leeds and Leeds University Union must act jointly and decisively to regain the trust of the students under their watch.
In its frantic attempts at damage control, Leeds University is shaking the trust of its students in the University’s ability to effectively safeguard them. The students of this institution rely upon it to take the necessary measures to keep them all safe. The eyes of its students are on the University. There has been enough talk; now is the time to act.
Perhaps the easiest way to carve the road ahead is to remind the University of some of its responsibilities. The University has the non-negotiable duty to ensure that its Jewish students (and all its students, including those of no faith) have access to quality pastoral support and care. Simultaneously, the University must also ensure that individuals associated with the University (chaplains, lecturers, and others) conform to our shared values and do not compromise students’ safety and well-being. Both responsibilities are non-exclusive; the University can and must do both.
It is especially important that University roles involving significant amounts of safeguarding responsibilities (including but not limited to chaplaincy work) think carefully about recruiting individuals from backgrounds likely to cause or recall trauma for students or to negatively impact their well-being. Past or current military service by a chaplain is one such element; this is doubly true if the service was or is with a military corps accused of war crimes, such as the IDF or the Russian Armed Forces. Any individual with a history of such service could far too easily be a potentially significant trigger to many students, thereby contributing to sentiments of insecurity and vulnerability across campus. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable for the University to refuse to employ or associate themselves with such an individual.
I am not going to sit and pretend that it is to be an easy road ahead. These are political matters, and chances are high that some students will never be fully satisfied. But that does not change the facts that the situation at present is dire, and the University playing coy and helpless only makes things worse. The potential for antisemitism and Islamophobia is no joke, and we collectively cannot afford to ignore this. The journey ahead is one that we must walk together, in unity of humanity, where all of us can be safe. By God, I implore the University administration to make the right choices, while we are still in a position to make them.
When approached for a response, a spokesperson of the University has stated:
“Students and staff across our community have been deeply affected by these events, and many in our community are concerned about the safety of loved ones in the region. As an institution, our thoughts continue to be with all of those killed, injured, held hostage, displaced, or otherwise affected.
The University is continuing to speak with the University Jewish Chaplaincy, as well as working with all faiths in the University’s Chaplaincy to review arrangements for how its services are provided on campus, to find a resolution that would address the impacts that we know are causing such distress, maintain effective chaplaincy for students, and restore harmony to our community.
In the meantime, following careful consideration and discussion, the University Jewish Chaplaincy (UJC) has arranged for Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski to join the remaining chaplain and provide interim chaplaincy support for Jewish students at the University.
Rabbi Zachariah Deutsch remains on leave of absence and is not performing his chaplaincy role or present on campus. Any comments he is reported to have made are in a personal capacity, and should not be interpreted as the position of the institution.”
This article was originally published on 12 December 2023.