‘We will occupy campus until they remove him’: return of chaplain who served in IDF criticised
Leeds Palestine Solidarity Group say they are disappointed after a chaplain has returned to campus after serving as a reservist in the Israeli Defence Force.
Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, who is an Israeli citizen, took leave from his role in Leeds last November to serve in the IDF.
His enlistment came as the IDF launched an unparalleled air strike bombardment and ground offensive on Gaza following the assault on Israel by Hamas.
On October 7, Hamas killed approximately 1,200 people and took over 200 women, men and children hostage in an unprecedented attack which stunned Israel.
Israel launched an offensive after the attack with the aim of destroying the group.
At least 27,000 people, many civilians, have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7 according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Israel has come under increasing scrutiny for its military operation in Gaza. Its allies, including the U.S., have urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do more to protect civilians during the conflict. In January, the International Court of Justice mandated provisional measures against Israel following an accusation of genocide by South Africa.
In response, Netanyahu says the IDF is doing all it can to minimise civilian casualties, including dropping leaflets warning them to evacuate areas.
The IDF has drafted thousands of reservists to boost its standing force since the start of the war, including the chaplain, whose decision to take leave from his role first came to light after he shared videos from Israel to a chaplaincy WhatsApp group for Jewish students.
Military service is compulsory for the majority of Israelis when they turn 18. After this, citizens until the age of 40, or even older in case of a national emergency, can be called up to reserve units. In times of war, they fight alongside regular troops.
In the videos, which are believed to have been recorded in late October or November, the chaplain says: ‘If you know the real story of what has been going on here in Israel over the last thousands of years […] no one can deny that Israel is dealing with this war with the utmost morality and good ethics.”
He added, “What Israel is trying to do is destroy the evil… whilst also trying to deal with the civilians of Gaza in the best way possible”.
The University of Leeds Chaplaincy service offers pastoral and spiritual support for students and staff from all practising faiths.
Whilst the University has insisted that the chaplain is not an employee and his views do not represent the institution, his return has left some students worried and concerned for their safety.
At a protest held on campus, speakers expressed their surprise that he had been permitted to return to his role.
“How can this University openly brag about its diverse, inclusive and safe environment whilst retaining someone who fought to destroy the land of Palestine?
“We will gather here today, we will gather here tomorrow and we will occupy the campus until they remove him.
“We demand justice for the people of Palestine.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the University of Leeds said: “Jewish Chaplains are employed and assigned by independent charity the University Jewish Chaplaincy (UIC) to provide services to students at universities across the UK, including the Yorkshire region.
“The University has been made aware of comments which we understand were made in a personal capacity and should not be interpreted as the position of the institution.”
In an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, the Leeds Palestine Solidarity Group argue that the actions of the chaplain mean he is unsuitable to be in a role responsible for student welfare and wellbeing.
“He is expected to offer unbiased, indiscriminate advice and support to students of all backgrounds […] how can all students at the university still consider the chaplaincy as a safe space?”
In a report published yesterday, the Daily Mail says that the chaplain and his family have left their home on the advice of the police after receiving death threats.
There is no suggestion that anyone at the protest is involved or in any way linked.
A speaker at the event on campus insisted that their protest was not hateful: “We don’t say anything hateful towards him. We’re not saying go and do this to him or do that, we don’t care. We just demand that the university sack him.”
University Jewish Chaplaincy say they are “deeply shocked and appalled” at the threats directed at their chaplain.
“It is devastating to find ourselves in this situation in the UK in 2024.”
Local politicians have called on the University of Leeds to ensure the safety of the chaplain and his family. West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin said: “Death threats made towards a Jewish member of staff are deeply concerning.”
Hilary Benn, the MP for Leeds Central, said: “The abuse and threats being directed at the Jewish Chaplain and his wife and at Jewish students at Leeds University is anti-semitism. I’ve contacted the university to ask what they are doing to protect and support Jewish staff and students.”
The Gryphon has offered Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch a right to comment but at the time of publishing has not received a reply.
Correction February 19: This article has been amended to include further context about reservists in the Israeli Defence Force. It also now includes the comments by the U.S. President Joe Biden urging the IDF to minimise civilian casualties.