International relations came to the front door of Oxford University’s Chabad Society as several pro-Palestinian demonstrators launched a loud protest on the busy thoroughfare of George Street Friday night.

Waving flags, handing out leaflets and raising their voices at passersby, the group objected to the appearance of veteran Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner at the inaugural Shabbaton of campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch centers in the United Kingdom.

According to Rabbi Eli Brackman, director of the Oxford University center and chairman of Chabad on Campus UK, an enterprising student went downstairs in the middle of prayer services to point out to the protestors that Avner’s appearance was far from political. The British-born ambassador, who maintained a close relationship with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, during his diplomatic stints in New York for several Israeli prime ministers, was instead invited to share his recollections of the Rebbe and the advice he gave during some of Israel’s most-troubled years.

After a representative from the protestors came upstairs to see Jewish community members and some 120 students from more than 10 campuses across the UK participating in a Shabbat evening prayer service, she returned to the street outside to calm the protests down.

For the rest of the evening, “they were quiet,” said Brackman, who learned of the planned protest shortly before Shabbat through a forwarded e-mail and arranged for extra security. “Students have protested against Israel before on campus, but we’ve never had a protest directly outside.”

All in all, said participants, the commotion was just a slight wrinkle in an otherwise enjoyable conference.

“It was the best lecture I’ve heard in Oxford this year,” commented Michael Stark of Hertford College.

Philippe Petrov, a graduate student at Oxford pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience, agreed.

“I don’t even know why they were there,” he said of the protestors. “I went to the Chabad center pretty early, before the official beginning of the evening, and I didn’t think too much of the crowd at that time. George Street always gets crowded.”

By the time Petrov left at 2:00 in the morning, the protestors had dispersed.

“I heard from some other people that [the protestors] had been pretty active,” related Petrov, “but my personal experience is that I didn’t really notice them. The ambassador was far more interesting.”

Julian Harris, a member of the Oxford Jewish community, looked at the event as a profound statement of the rapid expansion Chabad has made on campus of late. Thanks to the financial support of philanthropists David Slager and George Rohr, today, 10 full-time centers cater to university students.

“To have 100-plus Jews in a busy provincial city centre sharing a service and a meal, and then hearing such a speaker and joining together for dancing and more was a delight to behold and in which to partake,” said Harris. “I was sad to leave at almost midnight, and was amazed to be one of the first to do so.”

The following day, students gathered together for morning prayer services and a full lunch.

On Saturday night, Avner spoke at Lubavitch House in the Stamford Hill section of London, the headquarters of Chabad activities in the UK. In his talk, he reflected on the Oxford gathering.

“It was an extraordinary experience to see how this one couple,” he said, referring to Eli and Freida Brackman, “has brought together a galaxy of individuals, some for whom Friday night is natural, and many for whom this is the first time that they have experienced the enchantment of what Shabbat is.”