The UK National Union of Students Welcomes Everyone — Except Jews
by Jasmine San
The National Union of Students (NUS) has long been enveloped in controversy over its failure to adequately represent Jewish students. Most recently, NUS president Shaima Dalali was removed from her position due to well-documented evidence of antisemitism. As a result, the UK government disaffiliated with the NUS in May 2022.
An independent investigation into antisemitism within the NUS by Rebecca Tuck KC, which begun in May 2022 and was released in January 2023, revealed that for at least the last decade, Jewish students have not felt welcome or protected by the NUS.
According to the 2017 Jewish Students Experience Survey, 49 percent of Jewish students said they wouldn’t feel welcome at NUS events, 42 percent said they wouldn’t feel comfortable participating in NUS policy-making processes, and 65 percent said they didn’t have faith in how the NUS would handle any potential antisemitism claims.
Antisemitism complaints have been neglected, commonly on the basis that they are seen as criticism of Israel, not criticism of Jews; however, the boundary between the two is often blurred or misunderstood.
The investigation revealed that prejudice towards Jewish students included “the employing of ancient antisemitic tropes, from blood libels to Rothschild conspiracies,” as well as holding Jewish people accountable for the actions of Israel. At Coventry University, first year students had swastikas drawn on them at “white T-shirt parties,” while at the University of Birmingham, Aston University, and the University of Nottingham, stickers and posters saying “Hitler was right” were placed around campus.
At my university, the University of East Anglia (UEA), during the war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, the Student Union called an all-society president meeting to change the definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) to the Jerusalem Declaration (JDA). The timing was highly inappropriate since antisemitism in the UK had increased by 500%, according to Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that protects British Jews from antisemitism. Additionally, the Jewish students were not told about it until the last minute, giving them barely enough time to prepare. Fortunately, myself and other Jewish students wrote to the Student Union expressing the inappropriateness of the situation, and the meeting was called off.
However, over the summer of 2021, an Instagram post was reshared around multiple student society’s social media calling for the change in definition, and for people to “divest from companies facilitating illegal Israeli settlements.” The student who created the post openly compared Israel to the Nazi party, and despite many complaints from Jewish students, is now a UEA staff member. Antisemitism exists not only within the NUS, but also inside university student unions.
At the start of the following academic year, Jewish students were once again blindsided by a motion to change the definition of antisemitism from the IHRA to the JDA. Each society is allowed one representative, who is allowed to vote on motions. I was the Jewish representative, but I was not allowed to speak or vote on the matter, meaning no Jewish voices could share thoughts on the change. The JDA was unfortunately voted in.
The Community Security Trust verifies the severity of antisemitism faced by UK students in their new report, “Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2020-2022.” A 22% rise in university-related antisemitic hate incidents over the past two academic years is documented.
The NUS also has a track record of inadequately responding to antisemitic incidents, often promoting antisemitism in their “condemnations.” For example, in 2021, an NUS statement read, “We are deeply concerned to hear of a spike in antisemitism on campuses as a result of Israeli forces’ violent attacks on Palestinians.” The statement featured a grave mischaracterization of the Gaza-Israel War of 2021, where Hamas, a militant terror group, fired thousands of rockets into Israel’s population centers over 11 days. This forced Israel to defend its civilians, a fact that is well-documented.
Another statement by the NUS encouraged “those organising around Palestinian liberation to follow Na’amod.” Na’amod is a fringe group of anti-Zionist British Jews with a history of extremism including sympathizing with terrorists. In 2018, Na’amod members read out a list of names of people who had been killed in Gaza, the vast majority of them being Hamas terrorists. They then recited Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, in their honor.
Na’amod spreads anti-Israel propaganda, campaigns for BDS, and offered to help Pete Gregson, a leftist activist who perpetuates Holocaust denial, arrange a UK speaking tour.
Back in 2005, another NUS investigation into antisemitism was undertaken. However, reports of antisemitism within the NUS date back long before 2005. For example, in the 1980s, there were motions to ban Jewish societies in universities unless they explicitly stated that they were anti-Zionist. Some of these motions were successful, and many Jewish students felt compelled to hide their religion because they feared it would be used against them.
A Kurdish student proposed a motion in 2014 condemning the horrors committed by ISIS. Shockingly, Malia Bouattia, another NUS president who was later revealed to be an antisemite, refused to denounce ISIS, stating that to do so would be Islamophobic. The NUS, however, seem to have no concern for potential antisemitism when campaigning against Israel.
At the NUS conference where Bouattia was elected president, the NUS heard arguments against commemorating the Holocaust. The person arguing that the Holocaust should not be commemorated prepared a speech that ignored the Holocaust’s Jewish victims and instead focused on those who were LGBT, Roma, or communist.
Darta Kaleja, from Chester University, told the conference: “I am against the NUS ignoring and forgetting other mass genocides and prioritising others. … It suggests some lives are more important than others.… The NUS shouldn’t support Holocaust Memorial Day because it isn’t inclusive.” As shocking as this is for some, her remarks were met with applause, and people took to Twitter to support her.
Failures to priorities Jewish representation continued within the NUS. In 2017 and 2018, Judaism was not available as a faith choice on NUS forms on four separate occasions, despite all other faiths being listed.
The NUS Conference in March 2022 advertised that rapper Lowkey would be performing. Lowkey had previously described Israel as a “racist endeavour” and Zionism as “antisemitic,” and had spoken of the “Zionist lobby” in the context of global capitalism. After concerns from Jewish students, the NUS simply advised them to “go into an existing safe space” at the event. Additionally, they condemned “harassment and misinformation against Lowkey.”
In January of this year, with the release of the report, the NUS apologized to Jewish students for being “let down by the very organisation that should be protecting them.” The NUS has committed to following Ms Tuck’s recommendations, which include that the NUS should review “whether the NUS president should continue to be the sole chair and also line manager of the directors of NUS UK and NUS Charity, given the likely relative experience of those individuals,” and that the review should consider “alternative models for how those directors could be managed, assessed and supported.” The report also recommends that NUS Charity and the union itself should “jointly appoint an advisory panel” to ensure Tuck’s recommendations are implemented.
Clearly, antisemitism within the NUS is a long-standing issue. The NUS investigation and their apology is only a very first step in rectifying their failure in supporting Jewish students. The NUS should enhance its process for determining if candidates actually have a commitment to eliminating racism, including antisemitism. Like someone applying for a job, they should go through the proper vetting. The failure of NUS to do this in the past has led antisemitic candidates to run for NUS president. To handle antisemitism allegations appropriately and effectively, the complaints procedure needs to be enhanced, with antisemitism training for NUS staff being made mandatory, and Jewish students being the ones to determine if the NUS properly supports them.
Jasmine San is the UK Campus Advisor for CAMERA On Campus.