2019-2020 University College London CAMERA Fellow Aaron Seitler

“What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” wondered Tertullian in the 2nd Century AD. Holy water was worlds apart from the olive groves of philosophy and academe in the Roman Empire. And indeed UCL’s ancestry, Brougham, Campbell & Robinson, echoed Tertullian in Victorian England. 

Jeremy Bentham envisaged UCL as an entirely secular alternative to the Anglican Church elite at Oxbridge. No minister of religion sat on the College Council; to this day UCL’s prayer spaces are ambiguously named “Quiet Contemplation Rooms” and theology is conspicuously absent from the bulky undergrad prospectus. 

Yet nowadays the dichotomy of Athens and Jerusalem is dated. Philosophical challenge to religious belief arouses little interest and mainstream media outlets generally avoid it. Even the A.C. Graylings of the world tend to occupy a peripheral platform in the public eye. Ask a cleric, schmooze a Rabbi: both will concede that in 2019, most of their laity will not be turned off by reading Nietzsche. The contemporary battle-lines are drawn in sight of more earthly temptations, for the body before the mind. Or in other words, Tel Aviv before Jerusalem. 

Nestled in Mediterranean sunshine, Tel Aviv’s towering beachside skyscrapers epitomise western materialism and open tolerance. Almost two and a half million tourists flocked to the city last year to enjoy its bustling markets and vibrant nightlife. Take a twenty-minute train ride south however, and you may well have traversed a different continent, a different century. The cobbled streets of Jerusalem’s old city spin a tale of otherworldliness and austere religious conviction. Our prevailing culture on campus sits firmly in the Tel Aviv camp. Careerist ambition and boozy hedonism sit comfortably as most students’ university ideal. Yet amongst the ranks of the earthly-minded, a minority cling tightly to Jerusalem.

Their worlds exist in seamless parallel and in the past month, I was fortunate enough to witness both in quick succession. As Communications Officer for the UCL Israel Society, I had a hand in organising a phenomenally successful party event in Camden, aptly named “Tel Aviv takes London”. Hundreds of students descended on a club venue for hours of hazy link-ups and fun. Israeli music pounded on interminably as swarms of attendees took to the dance floor and went to town on free drinks.

“The contemporary battle-lines are drawn in sight of more earthly temptations, for the body before the mind. Or in other words, Tel Aviv before Jerusalem.”

A week later, we hosted a panel on religious divisions in Jerusalem. We barely tabled 10% of our previous attendance figure. Nonetheless, our smaller audience reported an almost 100% positive verdict on the interfaith discussion. Twenty-five UCL students sat glued to a fiery theological exchange between Jerusalemite Rabbi Binny Davis and prominent Anglican Jacob Vince. Students took to task a combined five decades of religious education in firing questions about Jewish particularism and the nitty-gritty of Christian identity. Observant Christians and Jews sat visibly absorbed as Rabbi Davis presented scriptural credentials for Jerusalem as “a house of prayer for all the peoples”, and Mr Vince decried contemporary “false prophets”. In asking how many of the audience had readEzekiel, he appeared impressed by a sea of raised hands. Some elements prompted broad agreement, like the view offered by Mr Vince that Israel’s image suffers from tour operators portraying a singular left-wing narrative. Other points proved controversial, such as the return of Jesus Christ in the Second Coming and implications of a “New Jerusalem” for Jewish people. Yet the discussion remained overwhelmingly positive and good-natured for panellists and audience members alike.

In the 21st century, paths are converging as religion appears to enter a renaissance at UCL. Recently appointing the first interfaith advisor, the university’s first interfaith committee assembled last year in response to growing demand from all sects for substantial dialogue.

In a delicious irony, the formerly known “Godless institution of Gower Street” (in the words of Thomas Arnold) stages Jerusalem in full bloom. UCL’s Islamic Society is flourishing as one of the largest and most active networks in London for Muslim students. The new Student Centre has also brought purpose-built facilities for Muslim prayers and ablutions. Equally, increasing numbers of observant Jews are choosing to continue their studies at UCL after years spent in religious learning. Recent months have seen the introduction of kosher sandwiches in Malet Place and a fixed space for afternoon prayer on university premises. Moreover, though homegrown Christianity is on the wane, an influx of students from the Far East has breathed new life into UCL’s Christian union. The President of the Catholic society confirmed that our 25 punters were only the tip of the iceberg.

Although Tel Aviv still rules the roost, religious groups are making a comeback on campus. And refreshingly, the secular milieu facilitates an interfaith dialogue alien to past generations. Whilst historic pogroms and crusades are not easily forgotten, modern notions of tolerance and a thirst for spiritual integrity in a materialist world forge bridges for observant people of all stripes. Though most students will continue to dance the night away in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem’s horizons are broader than ever before.

Originally published in Pi Media.

Contributed by 2019-2020 University College London CAMERA Fellow Aaron Seitler.

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