The NUS turns its back on Jewish students. Again

The governing body of the National Union of Students (NUS), the National Executive Committee (NEC), met this week to discuss matters that have arisen since the national conference in April and the election of controversial president Malia Bouattia.

Her election sparked a national debate about the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism on the left and gave rise to several disaffiliation referenda in universities nationwide. Since her election, four universities have disaffiliated from the NUS. One of the disaffiliators’ key concerns was Bouattia’s views, especially on Jewish issues. She once described the University of Birmingham (a campus with a large Jewish community) as a ‘Zionist outpost’ and has complained about ‘mainstream Zionist-led media outlets’. She was also involved in the scrapping of an NUS motion to condemn ISIS. At NUS national conference this year, there was applause for speeches against a motion to commemorate the Holocaust.

On the agenda at Monday’s NEC meeting was a motion saying that ‘Anti-Semitism on campus is rising’. Unfortunately, however, the NUS apportions blame for this anti-Semitism, not to those on the student left who use ‘Zio’ as an insult and speak of Zionist-led conspiracies, but to the EU referendum. After specifically identifying anti-Semitism as a problem on campus, the motion goes on to say that ‘in the wake of the EU referendum, racism in all its forms is rising and it is vital that NUS provides leadership in tackling racism’. ‘It is a top priority for the NUS to unite all students to root out [the] evils of racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism’, it says.

Even worse, in its final form the motion removed the ability of Jewish students to choose a representative on the Anti-Racism and Anti-Fascism committee (ARAF). The resolution passed, with a deciding vote from Bouattia herself, creating a situation where the ARAF committee is now appointed by the NEC of the NUS, rather than being chosen by students from the groups it is meant to represent. The Union of Jewish Students responded with a statement pointing out that it is now ‘down to NEC to elect the ARAF committee and therefore to decide on behalf of Jewish students who represents them. This decision is undemocratic and excludes the 8,500 Jewish students we represent. It was no surprise that the NUS president, Malia Bouattia, who had the deciding vote, once again showed that she has absolutely no interest in defending Jewish students’ interests by voting to remove the ability of Jewish students to shape for themselves the student movements’ fight against racism and fascism.’

The NUS’s chequered history with Jewish students was brought to the fore when Bouattia became president. But it stretches far back, most notably in the NUS’s preoccupation with Israel, which has led to some bizarre decisions. From the No Platforming of Zionist speakers to the shutting down of pro-Israel meetings to the NEC’s motion last year to boycott Coca-Cola over its apparent ties to Zionism, student leaders have had a strange and worrying take on Jewish issues for a long time.

The latest developments will lead many to wonder why the NUS, which so often paints itself as progressive, has a blind spot when it comes to Jewish students. In other areas of their liberation programme, the NUS has a dedicated Black Students’ Officer, Disabled Students’ Officer, two LGBTQ+ Officers, and a Women’s Officer, each heading up sizeable teams. And yet even as the NUS officially recognises that anti-Semitism is a growing problem on campus, it decides to take away Jewish students’ ability to choose their one representative on the ARAF committee.

After her election, Bouattia responded to her critics by saying: ‘One of the most important steps is to meet with everyone, to talk about these concerns, to heal the divisions.’ This week suggests that students are still right to lack confidence in her leadership and in the idea that the NUS is an institution capable of representing all of its members.

Oliver Shore is a writer and student.

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