The National Union of Students has again been embroiled in an antisemitism scandal, drawing criticism in recent months for its failure to protect Jewish students from discrimination, as well the revelation of antisemitic statements by its elected officers.
Robert Halfon, the MP in charge of the Commons Education Select Committee, last week referred the NUS to the Charities Commission “in regards to their treatment of Jewish students and the Jewish community’s concerns regarding antisemitism.” The nationwide confederation of student unions – of which Oxford SU is a part – was also the subject of a Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) report which said that the organisation’s policies and actions had resulted in “tangible harm to Jewish students.”
Shaima Dallali, the President-Elect of the organisation, has been criticised for tweets, including one that translates as “Jews, remember the battle of Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning”, referencing an AD 628 massacre of the Jewish community in the town of Khaybar. Apologising, she did not acknowledge the genocidal element of the event, instead simply referencing “the battle of Khaybar in which Jewish and Muslim armies fought”.
Dallali has previously referred to cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi as the “moral compass for the Muslim community at large”. Al-Qaradawi has said that he would “shoot Allah’s enemies, the Jews”, and called upon God to “count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.”
Responding to criticism, Dallali said, “I’m not the same person I was. I have developed my political language to talk about Palestine and Israel. I stand by that apology”. Discussing backlash, she said, “Unfortunately, as a black Muslim woman, it is something that I expected because I’ve seen it happen to other black Muslim women when they take up positions in the student union or the NUS, where they are attacked based on their political beliefs or their pro-Palestinian stance.”
In the wake of a huge rise in university-based antisemitism in early 2021, the NUS released a quickly deleted statement in solidarity with Jewish students, reading “We are deeply concerned to hear of a spike in antisemitism on campuses as a result of Israeli forces’ violent attacks on Palestinians”. This statement came under fire for associating Jewish students with the actions of the Israeli state, and not simply condemning violent antisemitic attacks.
Responding to this, a spokesperson for CAA said: “Even when supposedly showing solidarity with Jewish students, NUS has managed to blunder in ways that will leave Jewish students wondering how serious the organisation can be about representing and protecting them. It would almost have been better had they said nothing at all.”
Oxford Jewish Society’s president told Cherwell: “Oxford’s JSoc is deeply upset by the actions of the NUS leadership. Its response to the concerns of Jewish students at its national conference will be viewed by many as, at best, insensitive. Past comments of the President-Elect are also of concern to us. Though she has since apologised for some of these remarks, Oxford’s JSoc believes that similar remarks directed towards those of other races or faiths would likely be met with resignation, rather than an investigation.
Among other incidents cited in the CAA’s report was the invitation of rapper Lowkey to perform at its centenary event last month. In the past, Lowkey has spoken of the “Zionist lobby” in the context of global capitalism, defended Chris Williamson, an MP suspended from the Labour Party for antisemitism, and recently claimed that the “mainstream media” had “weaponised the Jewish heritage” of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to “stave off” concern about the Ukrainian far-right.
Jewish students who expressed concern at his invitation to perform were invited to remove themselves to a safe space which had been intended for attendees sensitive to loud music. Following criticism, Lowkey cancelled his performance, and the NUS released a statement expressing regret that the rapper had been the victim of “harassment and misinformation”. One Jewish Oxford student in attendance told Cherwell that there had been an “atmosphere of hostility” at the event.
These are not new issues; in 2016, a Commons select committee branded comments made by then-president Malia Bouattia as ‘outright racism’. Writing in a University of Birmingham Friends of Palestine blog post, she described the university as ‘something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education” with “the largest JSoc in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists.’ An internal report found that her comments “could be reasonably capable of being interpreted as antisemitic” but recommended no further action.
Bouattia also used her casting vote to remove the right of Jewish students to select their own representative on the Union’s Anti-Racism and Anti-Fascism Committee.
On Wednesday 13th, the NUS announced an independent investigation into the antisemitism allegations, stating “There can be no place for antisemitism within the student movement. We are listening to the concerns being raised and we’re very concerned about the pain and hurt being expressed. We will take any and all actions that are needed to remedy any wrongdoing and rebuild trust with Jewish students as well as our Members, partners and stakeholders”.
They also reemphasised a commitment to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which the organisation’s charter states must be renewed every three years.
Nonetheless, it could be the final straw for many. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told LBC on Thursday, “I worry that there is a pattern here, and this could be systemic in the NUS. I have asked my Minister Michelle Donelan to look at our relationship with the NUS”
“All options are on the table with this one, I am deeply deeply concerned.”
The president of Oxford JSoc’s told Cherwell: “While the news of an independent review and commitment to the IHRA definition of antisemitism is welcome, more still needs to be done to address the concerns of Jewish students in general and specifically that Jewish interests are considered unimportant compared to the interests of other identities.
“The NUS should therefore commit to following the recommendations of the review and take further steps to ensure the concerns of Jewish students are not ignored in this way again. Additionally, Oxford’s Student Union and Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality should use their platforms to make clear on a national level the concerns of Jewish students in Oxford specifically.”
In response to written questions, the Oxford SU told Cherwell that they welcomed an investigation, and that “students are able to pass Student Council motions informing the way our NUS delegates and Sabbatical Officers interact with NUS or referendum to disaffiliate from NUS should they wish to do so.”
However, the statement ended by affirming, “Despite all this, we’d also like to draw attention to the fact that we are disappointed in the way genuine student concerns about antisemitism have been co-opted by the Government and media to further the culture war and silence those who are advocating for Palestinian rights.”
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