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"We felt really misled"

An interview with JSoc

"An apology would be a start to a very lengthy process. We were all very, very distressed by the email we got from the Principal and the Rector together. She acknowledged distress, but that, for me, isn't an apology", a representative from the University of St Andrews Jewish Society (JSoc) tells me.

"Even though I disagree with what she said, you can still stand behind what you said and apologise if it caused hurt to anybody that disagrees with it. You can do that, and it doesn't discredit what you originally said, but she chose not to do that. She chose to respond over social media, so I think a level of trust has been broken amongst a lot of students".

We're speaking about the email sent to all students at the university just before 4pm on Tuesday, November 21, by the newly appointed Rector, Stella Maris. Entitled "Call for Immediate Ceasefire: Rector's Statement on the Israeli - Palestine Conflict", Ms Maris' statement condemned the "genocidal attacks by the Israeli government against Gaza" as well as the "apartheid, siege, illegal occupation and collective punishment" faced by the Palestinians.

The two JSoc representatives, who asked not to be named, tell me that "she [the Rector] reached out because she felt compelled to make a statement because she was freshly elected and wanted to say something about this. So, in the meeting she had with somebody from our committee, they had read her initial statement, which she had also talked about with other societies."

"We saw a draft that was obviously very different to the one published. I believe our representatives pointed out things they disagreed with and thought she'd change so we could get behind it. But she made it clear she wasn't going to change those. So, in response, we said we're not a political society; we represent various viewpoints within Jewish society, and this isn't something we wanted to stand behind."

"Her initial statement was already very much reflective of personal opinion, which isn't her role. And it's why we disagreed with some of the things [in the email], but we thought she would at least be constructive and edit those out because we had set out our concerns, and she wanted to represent us. But then her disregard of those edits makes it seem that she… I don't know whether she just met with us to check a box and say she had."

"Then the email sent was completely different to the draft either way, so really, it was just a waste of time. We felt really misled by that dialogue and the fact that she published something so different from what she'd posed to us".

Ms Maris confirmed to The Saint that, before the publication of her statement, she had "engaged with various student groups, including the Jewish Society, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Student Network, Amnesty International, and various University leadership. [sic]"

"This inclusive approach was aimed at incorporating diverse perspectives. The Jewish Society had reservations about the draft being "too political", and after their feedback, I attempted to address two of their three points. They also did not ask for mention of the antisemitic incidents in St Andrews. However, it was crucial to maintain the essence of the message, which led to differences between the draft and the final publication."

On November 27, a joint statement was issued from the Rector and the Principal, Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE, informing the community that "We have agreed to a process of mediation in which she and I will work together to try and restore an environment of inclusivity and respect".

When asked about this process, Ms Maris said: "I hope that the mediation process can lead to a satisfactory conclusion of this issue. I do wish to engage with, and alleviate any distress, which has arisen from these events. It is important that, as an institution, we are committed to fostering an environment that respects student wellbeing whilst encouraging robust debate and freedom of expression."

This joint statement, however, has not been welcomed by everyone. "I think a lot of people weren't happy with it, simply because she made her first statement by herself and used her own platform," one of the JSoc reps tells me, "and now she's kind of 'running to Mom' to help her make the statement. She has freedom of speech and is allowed to say what she wants, but she also needs to be able to be held accountable and stand up for what she did. It should have come from her."

"Last night, she finally responded after days. But she hasn't replied to anybody else — alumni, parents. I understand there are a lot of people messaging her who aren't part of the university and who are outsiders, but I think she should be responding to the students emailing her. Being so active on Instagram is a slap in the face. Because we know she's reading all this, we know she's seeing it… it's not like she's in a remote location and doesn't have a phone; she's just choosing to do it all on social media where other people can see and not over email with the people who have elected her. She's the one who's supposed to represent us to University Court and all these kinds of things, and she's just not fulfilling that role."

When asked what they feel the role of the Rector should entail, the two students told me: "I don't think it's within the role of the Rector to make personal political statements at all. Whatever the matter is, you're supposed to represent a diverse body of students. So, to make such a political statement that causes division within your community, I just don't think it's something she should be doing. I think that the senior staff can feel quite intangible for a lot of people. Because she's chosen to represent the students, her interaction with a lot of different societies would be beneficial because students would get a more hands-on idea of who they voted for. I think you can say your personal opinion at a different time or in a different way. Even on your personal Instagram account! Just not on your official Rector account."

I ask if they feel let down by Ms Maris. "Completely. Even just putting the content of the email aside, it's not in her job description to be furthering her political ideology. And that impacts all student minority groups, just for a representative of the wider institution to be making any group feel pushed aside or like they aren't being represented when that's what you're supposed to do. It's quite distressing that she used the platform we've given her… she's supposed to foster community and that sense of tolerance between everybody."

"The fact she used her platform to spread her political ideals or ideas or opinions which don't represent those of everybody in the student body… I feel like it's an abuse of her position and platform that makes us lose her trust. What if she's going to do this again? This affects all minority groups. If one minority is hurt in any way… this can always happen to a different minority as well. I think the protection of smaller groups in society within a bigger community is always very important and should be at the forefront of her priorities, which it's not as we have seen."

"One thing that is important to us [JSoc], and that we really wanted to say is that we know the Rector has received a lot of hate and aggression from people who aren't involved in this. Like racist comments, which is something we never want for anybody."

"We feel distressed by what she's said, and of course, we'd never want that for anybody. We do feel for her. She can receive criticism for what she's said, but blatant racism or comments that are just outwardly hateful is not what we want. She doesn't deserve to be receiving racist comments, and it's not fair at all. And we don't want any of that or condone any of that. It's never been our intention."

When asked what the place for personal opinion within the role of Rector is, Ms Maris responded, "As Rector, I understand my responsibility extends beyond mere administrative duties. It involves being an active voice for peace and conflict resolution, especially in matters that distress our student community."

"My stance on the Middle East conflict aligns with principles of international law and mirrors sentiments expressed by global human rights organisations. It's my belief that advocating for an end to violence and promoting peace is not only my right but also my duty in this role."

Ms Maris added, "In addressing these issues, I must also highlight the challenging circumstances following my initial statement, including facing misogyny, racism, and extreme hatred, culminating in death threats. These reactions are deeply concerning and contradict the values our institution stands for."

"I am liaising with relevant authorities to address these issues appropriately. I remain dedicated to the wellbeing of all students and staff at St. Andrew University [sic]. The support from over 7000 individuals worldwide, including over a thousand students and staff, both publicly and privately, has been heartening. It reinforces my commitment to my duties as Rector and to the principles I stand for."

Image courtesy of University of St Andrews Jewish Society.

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