If I, as a Jewish student at Oxford, were tasked with finding the worst possible way to combat anti-Semitism on campus, I might suggest the following: pull out of the one national body representing students at precisely the moment when it is conducting an internal review into anti-Semitism, thereby completely ignoring the advice of the outgoing President of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) who has urged against disaffiliation.
Yet, depressingly, the ‘No Thanks NUS’ campaign is encouraging us to pursue exactly this counter-productive strategy, as are many members of Oxford’s JSoc. As such, they are ignoring not only many within UJS, nor even the advice of John Mann MP – the prominent campaigner against anti-Semitism who told Oxford students last week that they should stay in NUS. To leave now would also mean riding roughshod over the views of every other liberation group in Oxford, almost all of whom have said publicly that they rely on NUS support and are hoping Oxford students say #YestoNUS.
So why would leaving be so damaging to the fight against anti-Semitism? At its recent conference, NUS passed policy strongly opposing anti-Semitism on campus. That motion was proposed by Oxford students, who were only at the conference in the first place because Oxford is in NUS. An amendment incorporating Holocaust education was debated, but it, too, passed overwhelmingly – because Jewish students were there to speak for it. The NUS will be including anti-Semitism in its forthcoming internal review on racism. Needing an institutional review does not make the NUS any more racist or anti-Semitic than the rest of society, but conducting one puts it miles ahead in tackling these problems. The battle against bigotry is ongoing, and it’s not one worth abandoning. Other liberation campaigns have shown that the democracy of the NUS can produce incredible turnarounds in its structure, for example in the recent establishment of a full-time officer for trans students.
Malia Bouattia, NUS President-elect, has made clear not only her commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, but also that it is inseparable from her opposition to racism and fascism in all forms. As NUS Black Students Officer, she visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and spoke about her work organising against fascism in the UK. She has been at the forefront of developing strategies to combat hate crime and defending NUS’s interfaith Faith and Belief programme – both issues of desperate importance to Jewish students. Single-handedly she forced NUS to conduct its forthcoming review into internal racism, and then she voted to support including anti-Semitism in that review. On Holocaust Memorial Day this year, before the recent furore, Bouattia released a powerful public statement which speaks for itself:
“On this day, we look back to the genocide of 6 million Jewish people along with millions of Roma, Poles, gay and disabled people, as well as political opponents and remember just what can manifest when discrimination, bigotry and hatred goes unchallenged… Let’s work together to stop the tragic history of oppression from repeating itself.”
Despite this, Bouattia has been labelled an anti-Semite on the basis of her political opposition to Zionism and two decontextualised comments. Context is important. She described Birmingham University as a ‘Zionist outpost’ because of the vehement opposition to the establishment of a student Palestine Society there. Appallingly, students had to battle for six months against anti-Palestinian campaigners just to win their right to set up the Society. When she said some of the media was ‘Zionist-led’, Bouattia was explicitly referring to the uncritical support for Israel shown by some sections of the British press; she wasn’t expressing support for shady conspiracy theories about Jewish cabals. It is dangerous and stifling to conflate political opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism. In response to concerns raised by Jewish societies, Bouattia immediately emphasised that her opposition to Zionist politics – an ideology ‘held by people from a variety of different backgrounds and faiths’ – goes hand in hand with her absolute opposition to anti-Semitism.
Some of the claims made about Bouattia are plainly and offensively wrong – newspapers have repeated the lie that NUS’s first Muslim President refuses to condemn ISIS, when the truth is that she wrote and passed a motion doing exactly that. Herself a refugee from terrorism, it is profoundly unpleasant to suggest that Bouattia is a terrorist sympathiser. Likewise, some have claimed that NUS deliberately sought to remove Jewish representation from its anti-racist committee. The truth is that NUS passed a motion proposed and seconded by Jewish students that objected to the previous President undemocratically picking her preferred Jewish candidate for the role. Bouattia is currently writing a motion to guarantee Jewish representation on that committee for the first time ever. These kinds of misrepresentations do no favours to the struggle against racism.
Nonetheless, some have charged that through careless use of language Bouattia might inadvertently have fuelled anti-Semitic tropes. That is a serious charge, and an important one. So how did she react? Crucially, she has listened to Jewish students. Her very first act on being elected was to meet with the leadership of the Union of Jewish Students, and she has pledged to build on this dialogue once her term in office begins. Rather than simply celebrating her victory and rubbishing her critics, she demonstrated a rare but appropriate humility, saying:
“There is no place for antisemitism in the student movement, or in society. If any of my previous discourse has been interpreted otherwise, such as comments I once made about Zionism within the media, I will revise it to ensure there is no room for confusion.”
So now we face crunch-time. The government has just released plans to raise tuition fees again. Following the junior doctors’ example, NUS will now launch a national campaign to force a government U-turn. Weakening NUS by leaving it at this critical moment will make it much harder to win, thus increasing the likelihood of the government pushing through further damaging changes to universities. Leaving would also remove the vital NUS support our liberation campaigns rely on. To make matters even worse, leaving NUS now would mean abandoning the battle against anti-Semitism in a crucial arena. I’ll be proud, as a Jewish student, to vote #YestoNUS in sixth week.