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The Case for No: Why JCRs should motion to disaffiliate from the National Union of Students

CW:references to anti-Semitism

The Hilary Term university-wide referendum (with only 5% turnout), resulted in the Oxford University Student Union’s (SU) continued affiliation with the National Union of Students (NUS), a nation-wide organisation of university and college students that has been recently been plagued with allegations of antisemitism and abuse. With 56% voting to remain affiliated and 42% wanting to disaffiliate, it was yet another resounding ‘NO’ answering the question of whether the SU should sever ties with the NUS.

This was not the first time the Oxford University has held such a referendum, nor was Oxford the first university to hold such a referendum this year: back in 2016, Oxford’s first disaffiliation referendum failed with similar margins but boasted a much bigger turnout (27.7%). In the last 6 months, student unions from the universities of Warwick, Brighton, Queen Mary and Reading all voted to disaffiliate for essentially the same matters I am now raising for debate: how the NUS treats Jewish students. Much can be said about how the ‘No’ campaign at Oxford was run this time around, but I would be amiss to obsess over that result. Oxford’s students voted and we must all respect that. However, I am here to make the case that JCRs, being separate legal entities from the SU, should and must all vote to disaffiliate from the NUS.

Before I dive into the issues, however, I will make a few preliminary points. 

Firstly, time is of the essence. If your JCR’s constitution is anything like mine, there is only one opportunity every year to review its affiliation. For Brasenose, this is at the upcoming fifth week Trinity term meeting, and the JCR Secretary is required to propose the motion. So, if after reading this article you are indeed convinced, read up on your constitution – or change it, it’s easier than you think – and start proposing those disaffiliation motions. 

Secondly, I understand and appreciate that certain topics discussed in this article are deeply personal for some readers. I sincerely hope that any conversation that you may have about this topic will remain respectful, cordial, and productive like this article intends to be. 

Thirdly, the point of this article isn’t necessarily to advocate for disaffiliation, however counterproductive that may seem. I don’t claim to be an expert on the NUS by any means, and so I cannot predict the practical consequences of disaffiliation with any degree of accuracy. Rather, I am making the case for ‘No’ in the hopes that it will encourage the crucial dialogue amongst students so we can have the conversation that we should have had last term, about antisemitism, about the Israel/Palestine conflict, about which organisations we choose to affiliate ourselves with and why. What I don’t want, is for JCRs to blindly subscribe to organisations that we know little about and ask ourselves what happened after the fact when things go horribly wrong. And horribly wrong things did go.

The NUS has an antisemitism problem. This is no secret to anyone who has been following the saga around the ousting of their last President, Shaima Dallali. The Government, in their press release announcing the suspension of relations with the organisation, said that the antisemitism issues are ‘well-documented and span several years.’ This is all because the NUS commissioned an independent report by Rebecca Tuck KC, a horrifying account of how Jewish students were mistreated and ostracized.. I will detail some of her findings now. 

In a 2017 survey about the experience of Jewish students, a whopping 49% stated that they would not feeling comfortable attending NUS events. According to Ms Tuck, this figure would be no better today. What then, exactly, has gone so wrong for a near majority of Jewish students nation-wide to feel uncomfortable attending events hosted by an organisation that is supposed to represent all students? 

In her report, Ms Tuck details how Jewish students were alienated due to their perceived affiliation with ‘Zionist’ viewpoints, and how such an environment went unchallenged within the NUS. When these students brought complaints and sought redress within the organisation, their concerns were dismissed for ‘bad faith’ or improper motive, and this resulted in a culture of hostility towards Jews. She also found that Jewish students suffered harassment related to their race and or religion which the organisation’s policies failed to address, in a potential breach of the Equalities Act 2010. 

The following is worth quoting in full: “It is apparent from this report – and indeed from other reports over the last 17 years – that the culture within NUS and at NUS events has been perceived by many Jewish students, for good reason, as hostile.” (emphasis added)

Here are some accounts of the experience of Jewish students at NUS conferences: 

“There was an open endorsement of violence against Israeli civilians and Zionist sympathisers at NUS Society and Citizenship Zone Conference in 2011 without challenge. This made me feel unsafe as a Jew and I left the event early. I did not attend any more Zone events.”

“At the 2016 conference there was a motion for the NUS to mark HMD [Holocaust Memorial Day]. I was really really shocked that someone could speak against the motion. The person who spoke against had prepared a speech, removing the Jewish nature of the Holocaust talking about gay/Roma/communist etc. victims. Megan Dunn [then President] spoke up and asked why there was a problem marking the centrality of antisemitism in the Holocaust. I had never before come across people who genuinely did not understand the antisemitic nature of the Holocaust. For that position to be applauded was very shocking. It had been tabled to be a unifying motion.” (emphasis added).

As one Palestinian delegate wrote:

“Antisemitism plagues every part of the NUS…. As a Palestinian, I find it deeply offensive that support for Palestinian human rights is being used to mask blatant antisemitism. The conflation between the conflict in Israel-Palestine and British Jews must stop. Our Jewish students cannot be made to feel responsible for a conflict that is being waged thousands of miles away. They cannot be made to feel unsafe, as they are hounded and targeted at our university. Instead, we must listen to them and act on their concerns. The advocation of Palestinian rights and valid criticism of the Israeli government should never lead to or justify racism against Jewish students in Britain.”

This must stop. As many have pointed out, the NUS is committed to addressing these concerns and to transform this hostile culture. However, as Ms Tuck notes, “[altering] a culture is a notoriously difficult task.” It is only right that JCRs motion to disaffiliate from this organisation in order to signal our trenchant condemnation of the antisemitism within the NUS and send a strong message about our values and beliefs. No one should be made to feel unwelcome because of their race or religion, and this is especially true for a national organisation that is supposed to represent all

There are, however, broader lessons to take away from this experience. As Ms Tuck notes, this culture of hostility is directly linked to the Israel/Palestinian conflict, which in turn stems from the conflation of British Jews and the Israeli government. Anecdotal accounts tell me that this may also be true in Oxford, although I cannot confirm the extent or severity of these issues. It is crucial that we, as a university, do not slip into the same toxic mindset that has plagued the NUS for the better part of the last two decades. We must always remember that a person’s political opinions are not defined by their race or religion, and we must never allow Jewish students to feel unwelcomed based on what their perceived views are.

This is why I want you, the reader, to propose and fiercely debate disaffiliation motions within your own JCRs. This is an important conversation, and it goes to the heart of who we are as Oxford students and what we believe in. At the end of the day, whether our JCRs are affiliated with this one organisation is of little significance. However, what is important is that the message is loud and clear: hate, in any form, must never be tolerated as we work towards becoming a more inclusive and welcoming university for all. 

Image Credit: Jimmy Harris//CC BY 2.0 via Flikr

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