Every year hundreds of university students from all around the United Kingdom converge at the National Union of Students (NUS) conference. For three days, delegates representing seven million university students from 600 campuses gather to elect a new president, debate, set policy vis-à-vis advocating for the rights of students nationwide, and have fun.
In 2022, part of the fun was supposed to be a performance by the rapper Lowkey. The 37-year-old Iraqi-British rapper and political activist, whose real name is Kareem Dennis, was a popular choice among delegates. His music touches on issues of class and race in England and around the world, and his albums Soundtrack to the Struggle and Soundtrack to the Struggle 2 have both hit the top 10 on UK R&B charts.
Many Jewish students, however, were deeply uncomfortable with this choice. Lowkey is also known for his advocacy of Palestinian causes, which is reflected in his lyrics. One of his most popular songs, “Long Live Palestine,” goes: “You say you know about the Zionist lobby / But you put money in their pocket when you’re buying their coffee / …Nothing is more antisemitic than Zionism / …Israel is a terror state, they’re terrorists that terrorize.” In addition, Lowkey had endorsed the controversial former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, signing a letter in 2019 describing Labour under Corbyn’s leadership as “a beacon of hope in the struggle against emergent far-right nationalism, xenophobia and racism in much of the democratic world.”
The musician had also expressed support for former Labour MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended from the party in 2019 over allegations of antisemitism.
Initial complaints about Lowkey’s performance were brushed off by the leadership of the NUS. One person who raised objections was Nina Freedman, 23, then-president of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), which advocates for the interests of almost 9,000 Jewish students from Jewish societies spread across 70 college campuses. Freedman says then-NUS president Larissa Kennedy told her that while Lowkey was on stage, Jewish students could go to an existing space designated for conference attendees sensitive to loud noise. (Kennedy did not respond to a request for comment, but she denied saying this when questioned in front of a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the incident.)
Ultimately, the NUS didn’t cancel Lowkey; rather, he dropped out in response to a flurry of negative publicity in the press and on social media. This development, however, only made the situation worse for many Jewish students. Conference delegates who supported Lowkey staged a protest on the roof of a venue where the NUS’s 100th birthday party was being held, and a breakout session run by the UJS was taken over by people Freedman characterized as “bad faith actors” asking “nasty questions about antisemitism.” The atmosphere was toxic, according to many Jewish students in attendance. Joel Rosen, Freedman’s successor as UJS president, says one Jewish student came up to him in tears. “Not very pleasant” is how Freedman recalls these events, in classic British understatement. But the March 2022 conference was just one skirmish in the long-running tensions within the NUS, a reflection, some say, of that body’s troubling and deep-rooted obsession with Israel/Palestine. That focus can manifest as antisemitism and marginalize and isolate Jewish students—whatever their feelings on Israel may be.
In the United States, when someone refers to a student union they are usually talking about a building on campus that serves as a general student activity center overseen by the university. British students also have students’ unions, SUs for short, that act as social hubs on campus where, on most nights of the week, the floors are sticky and the liquor cheap and plentiful. The difference is that SUs in Britain are run by actual students’ unions, and the unions play a political role as democratic, representative organizations that fight for the interests of their members—the students on campus.
The national union of students has long been a breeding ground for the British politicians of tomorrow.
The students’ unions belong to the NUS, a boisterous national institution organized as a nonprofit, which receives some of its funding from the government. It offers a range of benefits for college students, from discounts at retailers and entertainment venues to avenues for political participation. Students’ unions elect delegates to represent them in the NUS, who in turn help organize campaigns that fight for students’ rights at the national level. In 2010-11, for example, the great animating cause for British students was the Conservative-led government’s proposal to almost triple the cost of college tuition. The NUS mobilized a huge number of students behind this cause and organized large-scale protests that marched past Downing Street to the Houses of Parliament.
The NUS has another important function: It has long been a breeding ground for the British politicians of tomorrow, particularly for the Labour Party, says Jodi Burkett, a historian and expert on the history of the NUS. Conservative students, she says, tend not to engage with the NUS because they view it as an organization dominated by the left. (The Conservative Party has its own political nurseries, including the private sector and the nation’s elite private secondary schools.) Former NUS presidents who have made a name for themselves in Britain include Jack Straw, who was Tony Blair’s home and foreign secretary, and Wes Streeting, Labour’s current shadow health secretary. For students interested in politics, says Burkett, the NUS “trains them in the machinations of coalition building,” as well as “figuring out how to influence other students” in a debate or at a conference.
Students’ unions and the NUS are only one outlet for British college students. There are a plethora of on-campus student groups: roller-skating societies, film societies, Afro-Caribbean societies—the options are nearly endless. There are also societies associated with political parties and religious groups. For British Jewish students—who collectively make up about 0.4 percent of Britain’s student population—there are Jewish societies, or JSocs. “They are the center of Jewish life on campus,” Joel Rosen explains—hosting Friday night Shabbat dinners, social and educational events, and talks by invited speakers. JSocs range in size from more than 1,000 members in cities such as Nottingham and Birmingham to as few as five or ten members on campuses in rural Keele, between Birmingham and Manchester, or in the old port city of Hull on England’s east coast.
The Union of Jewish Students is the umbrella organization supporting Britain’s JSocs, and it’s one of many national student organizations (others include the Federation of Student Islamic Societies) that are associate members of NUS and participate in its conferences and other activities. At the UJS offices in North London, I meet up with Rosen, president for the 2022-2023 academic year. Wiry, clean-shaven and bespectacled, the 22-year-old enthusiastically delves into boxes stacked against the wall and hands me a copy of his latest initiative, the union’s revived print magazine Aleph. The inaugural issue includes an article from a student describing his personal journey from prison to the London School of Economics and a meditation on the four sons of the seder from a trans perspective. The UJS, which was founded in 1919, takes stands on all sorts of issues that Jewish students care about. It helped arrange financial and other assistance for Jewish students who sought refuge from Nazism in the 1930s, and in the 1980s it organized a campaign in support of Soviet Jewry.
These days the issues on the table are often centered on Israel. The day before my visit, the organization had put out a statement under Rosen’s guidance condemning the new Israeli government and the anti-Palestinian and homophobic views of some of its members. “If we as a community call out the far right in Britain and elsewhere, we must not turn a blind eye to the far right in Israel,” the statement read. Currently, the UJS is fighting against the Conservative government’s new so-called “anti-BDS bill,” which would punish public bodies that enact boycotts of foreign governments or territories in contradiction to British foreign policy. The UJS fears the bill would undermine “the democratic right to nonviolently protest” and “weaken the ability of British Jewish students to approach the conversation about Israel in a nuanced manner.”
‘I am not a Zionist, I even lean anti-Zionist, and even I found the undue focus on Israel and one-dimensional discussion of Israel to be completely over the line.’
The UJS also combats antisemitism, promotes Holocaust education and supports interfaith and Israel-related activities, including sending Israeli shlichim (emissaries) sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel to different campuses. The latter has been a sore point for Jewish students who identify as non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. Emily Hilton, a Jewish activist affiliated with the Diaspora Alliance, an international organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism by promoting the values of a multiracial democracy, tells me UJS policies “don’t necessarily represent the views of all Jewish students.” And she’s not the only one who thinks so. In 2021, a motion narrowly passed at the annual UJS conference that alleged the organization exhibited “patterns of exclusion and abuse towards Jewish students who do not identify as Zionist.” These internal dissensions, however, pale in comparison to the external challenges that Jewish students have faced, particularly within the NUS itself, over the last few decades.
At the same chaotic 2022 conference where Palestinian solidarity activists climbed on the roof to protest the absence of rapper Lowkey, Shaima Dallali, a Muslim woman of Tunisian descent, was elected NUS president despite her history of anti-Israel statements. During the 2012 Gaza war she had tweeted, “Khaybar Khaybar O Jews…Muhammed’s army will return #Gaza,” a chant the Anti-Defamation League states “can be perceived as a threat of armed violence or forcible expulsion against Jews.” (“Khaybar” is a reference to a seventh-century battle in which Muhammad’s forces took revenge on Jews for supposed treason.) Dallali would later call Israel a “Zionist settler colonial project,” deem the Board of Deputies of British Jews a “disgrace” and back Palestinian armed resistance “by all means possible.”
While there were grumblings about Dallali’s polarizing candidacy, former Labour Students chair Ben McGowan says there was no organized opposition to it. McGowan, who is not Jewish, remembers that part of the March 2022 NUS conference as being “quite depressing.” Since Dallali had the backing of hard-left factions, it felt like there was nothing anyone could do to stop her, says McGowan. In fact, he notes that many delegates were in denial at the time about the allegations of antisemitism that had been leveled against Dallali.
Dallali’s victory did not go unnoticed by the British political establishment. It triggered an immediate response from a group of more than 20 high-profile former union officials, including three former cabinet ministers of the UK Parliament. They sent what has been described as an unprecedented private warning to NUS trustees—current and former union leaders who oversee the organization—urging them to address the group’s relationship with Jewish students. More than 1,300 Jewish students wrote and signed their own open letter, calling for an independent investigation into the issue of antisemitism within the NUS in consultation with Jewish students and the UJS.
Meanwhile, the NUS also came under fire from the Conservative British government. A month after the conference, then-education minister Michelle Donelan warned that her department would temporarily suspend cooperation with the NUS due to the antisemitism allegations, a threat it followed through on a month later. Adding to the political pressure, Robert Halfon, the chair of the British Parliament’s Education Select Committee, referred the NUS to the Charity Commission, which regulates nonprofits in England and Wales, requesting they launch an investigation. “The NUS and its trustees past and present have consistently failed to protect Jewish students from discrimination and harassment and indeed sometimes have been the cause of such discrimination and harassment,” Halfon said.
In response, NUS’s board of directors commissioned an independent investigation into allegations of antisemitism in the NUS, appointing Rebecca Tuck, a senior trial lawyer who specializes in discrimination law, to lead it. Tuck also conducted a separate investigation into Dallali and whether she had breached the NUS’s code of conduct. Dallali took office on July 1, 2022, but in September, she was suspended from the role. On November 1, following what has been described as a “confidential employment process” involving a NUS disciplinary panel, the union took the unprecedented step of dismissing her. Dallali has sued the NUS and says via her lawyers that she believes she is the victim of discriminatory treatment as a Black Muslim woman and due to her beliefs concerning the plight of the Palestinian people. The NUS says it cannot comment on the specifics of Dallali’s firing since legal proceedings are ongoing.
The UJS said it “respected” the decision to dismiss Dallali, but not all Jewish students believe it was appropriate. The Diaspora Alliance’s Emily Hilton, for example, views the attacks on Dallali as unfair and believes there was an intentional conflation of some of Dallali’s critical statements toward Israel with antisemitism. “Piling on a young, Black Muslim woman in the media is not a good thing to be doing,” she says. “It wasn’t a constructive way to think about how everyone can feel safe in the student movement.” Dallali is also backed by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Britain’s main pro-Palestinian group, which argues that the NUS and Dallali’s opponents failed to distinguish “between genuine antisemitism and legitimate advocacy for the rights of Palestinians.”
As they do at universities in the United States, cases such as Dallali’s bring up the thorny question of how to make the student political arena a space in which all students can express their views and feel represented, yet disagree with one another. “I’m not suggesting people with hateful views should be canceled,” says Danny Stone, director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust (APT), a nonprofit that works with politicians to address Jew-hatred in Britain. Rather, Stone would like to see universities put a system in place that creates channels for students who are uncomfortable with a planned speaker as well as measures that ensure an event is not hateful. His suggestions include recording events, which would make dealing with ex post facto antisemitism complaints easier, and having guest speakers sign a contract in advance that commits them to abide by British law and the rules of the university regarding what constitutes hate speech. The APT has also been pushing for the Office for Students, the independent regulator of higher education in England, to require antidiscrimination action plans for institutions seeking accreditation.
Palestine became the foreign policy issue for the NUS when apartheid ended in South Africa in the early 1990s.
Adjudicating what does or does not constitute antisemitism requires institutions to have a definition of what antisemitism means. One possible standard, backed by the UJS and other British Jewish institutions, is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism (known as IHRA), which states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” and includes examples such as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” or “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” At least 245 of Britain’s 285 higher education providers have adopted IHRA; supporters argue that it draws a line between legitimate and even vociferous criticism of Israel and anti-Zionist hatred that is antisemitic.
Hilton, however, views IHRA as “a tool to silence dissent around Israel.” She points to a recent report from the European Legal Support Center, an organization that defends the Palestinian solidarity movement through legal means, which found 53 incidents between 2017 and 2022 in which IHRA led to “infringements of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly” vis-à-vis Palestinian rights. While the Diaspora Alliance and groups like it back an alternative definition called the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, Hilton finds the entire definition conversation something of a red herring. The challenge for her is finding a way to fight for the collective liberation of all peoples and address antisemitism that “doesn’t pit [Jews] against other minorities.” This is what IHRA does, she argues, by placing Jewish concerns “in opposition to other human rights struggles.”
This debate, a familiar one on American college campuses, plays out very differently in the United Kingdom, in part because of the NUS’s unique political history.
Although the British student movement has always been entwined with world affairs, historically Palestine was not a central issue in the way it is today. In fact, there was once a political and cultural affinity between the British labor movement and Israel as a poor, socialist state dominated by Mapai (the party of David Ben-Gurion), the Histadrut trade union movement and the kibbutzim. Israel was David and the Arab world Goliath, a power dynamic that reversed itself in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and subsequent Palestinian intifadas.
Only then did the language of anticolonialism and anti-imperialism begin to merge with the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Soviet anti-Zionism filtered down into British far-left discourse. So, too, did notions of a global Zionist influence and the idea that the struggle against Zionism was part of the struggle for national liberation throughout what was then referred to as the Third World. Historian Jodi Burkett notes that at the beginning of the 1970s, such activism was “relatively unproblematic.” But everything changed in 1975 when the United Nations General Assembly in New York passed its infamous resolution stating that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Antiracism “had been a fundamental part of the NUS’s understanding of itself” as early as the 1950s, Burkett says, and the Palestinian cause came to be understood as being “about racism and fascism.”
The “Zionism is racism” proclamation resulted in students’ unions up and down Britain banning Zionist activities and trying to sever all connections between the NUS and Zionist groups. The nadir in this campaign against Zionism took place in 1985 in northeast England at Sunderland Polytechnic, today the University of Sunderland, where the SU banned its Jewish Society on the basis that it constituted a Zionist organization. The ban was supported by the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine, a fringe group whose sponsors then included Jeremy Corbyn.
In fact, Palestine became the foreign policy issue for the NUS when apartheid ended in South Africa in the early 1990s. In seeking a new justice cause, many activists, especially on Britain’s far left, came to see Israel as the new South Africa, based on an understanding of Zionism refracted through the prism of anticolonialism and antiracism.
Important, too, was the emergence of what’s called the “red-green alliance,” a pact between the old far left and political Islamism, which began in Britain in the 1990s. Not only did that alliance cement the centrality of Palestine in far-left politics, it brought leftists into alignment with groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose views would normally be antithetical to it. Corbyn, for example, whose leadership of the Labour Party begat an antisemitism crisis that almost consumed it, once called Hamas “an organization that is dedicated toward the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice.” In 2009, he spoke of Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends” at a parliamentary reception.
Sympathy for the Palestinians manifested as antagonism toward Israel and Jewish students at the 2005 NUS conference, recalls APT’s Danny Stone, who attended as a UJS organizer. Jewish students, he says, felt “unwelcome, isolated and unsupported by the national students’ union,” especially when the General Union of Palestinian Students distributed an antisemitic leaflet that included passages from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other antisemitic content. Jewish students were demoralized. During the convention, three Jewish NUS officials, including future Labour MP Luciana Berger, resigned, citing the organization’s “continued apathy to Jewish student suffering.”
This and other incidents drew attention to the extreme factions controlling the NUS at the time, and for a few years Jewish students felt less ostracized. By 2016, however, far-left students had regained control of the NUS and elected as president Malia Bouattia, the first Black woman and first Muslim to hold the post. Bouattia made frequent anti-Israel remarks, including describing her alma mater, the University of Birmingham, as “something of a Zionist outpost in British higher education” and warning of the influence of “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets.” Under Bouattia’s leadership, Jewish students said they felt unwelcome in the NUS. When Bouattia failed to win a second term in office, her successor promised to restore students’ trust in the NUS. And the cycle began again.
The creeping centralization of Palestine in British student politics extends beyond the NUS into colleges and campuses generally, as sociologist David Hirsh is all too aware. When I show up at his North London home shortly after lunchtime, Hirsh is only half expecting me. Recalling our appointment, he invites me in and we take a seat in his living room, where a large desk sits inside the bay window. Hirsh settles in on the couch across from me, above which are shelves lined with books and DVDs with Hebrew and Arabic titles.
Since 2003, Hirsh has been a senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, a college located in southeast London. He is perhaps best known for coining the “Livingstone Formulation,” named for the former mayor of London Ken Livingstone. The Livingstone Formulation is a reference to those who refuse to engage with an accusation of antisemitism on its merits, but rather respond with a counteraccusation that the accuser is taking part in a conspiracy to silence political speech.
The anti-Israel political culture in the NUS, Hirsh thinks, reflects a broader problem not only in academia but in left-liberal circles in Britain in general. Hirsh and like-minded colleagues have been pushing back against academic boycotts of Israel since the mid-2000s. In April 2005, the Association of University Teachers voted to boycott two Israeli universities, a decision overturned a month later following international outcry. In 2006, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education passed a motion in favor of boycotting Israeli lecturers and academic institutions who did not dissociate themselves from their country’s so-called “apartheid policies.” The two associations later merged to form the University and College Union (UCU), rendering that motion null and void since it wasn’t binding on the merged union.
“If somebody doesn’t want to go to Israel, they don’t have to,” Hirsh tells me. “But to insist that a university or a [trade] union adopt a policy that says that you cannot do collaborative work with someone who lives in Israel is quite a different thing. It’s about setting up an exclusion of Israelis—and only Israelis.” And in the case of the 2006 motion, he says it was about imposing a litmus test on Israeli academics—that only those willing to disavow their institution or distance themselves in public forums from what anti-Israel academics term “Israeli apartheid” were deemed acceptable.
In 2007, Hirsh tried to challenge support for boycotts within his own UCU branch at Goldsmiths but says he had a hard time getting members to back a motion that said, “We’re for the politics of peace, for solidarity with the Israeli peace movement and with those Palestinians who are for a peaceful solution, and for organiz[ing] concrete material solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian universities.” It was a shock to Hirsh that a number of his colleagues who didn’t normally attend union meetings showed up to vote against the motion and in favor of an academic boycott. “I was a bit naïve,” he tells me.
Hirsh soon found himself almost totally isolated within his department at Goldsmiths for pushing back against the academic boycotts—“There were many people who didn’t talk to me and I didn’t talk to them.” And although it is always hard to know if the one led to the other, Hirsh struggled to get his academic work peer-reviewed and published in journals. Instead, he made a living off of student advising and first-year teaching, “the work a lot of people didn’t want to do.”
The college did defend Hirsh last year when, in response to his claim that attempts to “decolonize education” have an antisemitic edge, the then-president of Goldsmiths’ students’ union went on Twitter to call him a “far-right white supremacist.” Three months after the March 2022 tweet, Goldsmiths’ head called the remarks “utterly without foundation” and “completely unacceptable.” That is more than can be said for Hirsh’s own union, which chose in May to stand “in full solidarity” with the students’ union president, calling her “a powerful and effective voice in fighting against all forms of violence and injustice.” Hirsh says that his departmental colleagues were going to back him publicly, but they couldn’t agree on how their statement should be worded and thus the matter was dropped.
Hirsh is not alone in perceiving a changing atmosphere in British academia in recent decades. “A relatively new trend is students reporting what they consider to be antisemitism in lectures from academics,” says Dave Rich, author of The Left’s Jewish Problem and head of policy at the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that provides security to Jewish community institutions and researches and monitors antisemitism. In a conversation at their austere north London headquarters, he explains that this antisemitism “can either be things that are said in the course of their teaching, or things that [academics] have put online on social media that their students have seen.” So much of this, he says, is expressed in “Israel-related language,” but the tropes “behind it are very old,” i.e. anti-Israel hatred underpinned by antisemitism.
The most high-profile case of an academic accused of antisemitism was that of David Miller, a professor of sociology at the University of Bristol in southwest England, which has a relatively large Jewish student community. Miller “helped develop this whole theory that Islamophobia is, in part, the phenomenon that it is because, basically, rich pro-Zionists spend lots of money to encourage it. And to encourage people to hate Muslims,” says Rich. At Bristol, Miller taught this theory to his sociology students—complete with a slide covered in arrows purported to show a web of Jewish people and organizations—including at a lecture in February 2019 that “absolutely horrified” some of the Jewish students in attendance.
Former UJS President Nina Freedman was at Bristol at the time studying English. She didn’t take any classes with Miller, but in her capacity as president of the college’s JSoc, she went to the dean of social sciences and made a complaint against him. Freedman, who now works at Antisemitism Policy Trust, did not anticipate what was in store. “I never expected it to go as far as it did,” she says. “I was 18 when all this began. I didn’t really know anything about anything.”
Initially, Miller’s peers determined that he hadn’t done anything wrong. In response to the complaint, Miller himself sent an email to a Jewish student journalist in which he said that “Zionism is and always has been a racist, violent imperialist ideology premised on ethnic cleansing” that has “no place in any society.” He also called Bristol’s JSoc “an Israel lobby group” that has “consistently attacked me with a campaign of manufactured hysteria.”
In December 2019 the college adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and in October 2021, following what it described as a “full investigation,” it determined that Miller “did not meet the standards of behavior we expect from our staff” and fired him. “It was astonishing that he lasted as long as he did,” Rich concludes. Miller still has his supporters, including fellow professors and researchers who maintain he has been censored for his criticism of Israel. Cast out of academia, Miller now produces and appears on the show Palestine Declassified on the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV. In an early episode he claimed that Chabad runs a children’s group called the Army of Hashem “dedicated to waging war against non-Judaism,” and in August, he accused British Jewish schools of indoctrinating pupils into becoming Zionists.
The creeping centralization of Palestine in British student politics extends beyond the national union of students into colleges and campuses.
Upon announcing Miller’s termination, Bristol acknowledged that it had “a duty of care to all students and the wider university community”—without mentioning Jewish students specifically. The university would not comment on the Miller case because it is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings. Freedman thinks the Miller scandal has changed the way potential Jewish students view Bristol. Whereas 50 to 100 students once regularly attended Shabbat dinners there, now she says its JSoc is “dwindling.” She also heard “from parents saying they were afraid to send their kids to Bristol.”
Despite cases like these, Dave Rich says antisemitism on British campuses is not as pervasive as people think. “I’m always quite skeptical when I hear people talking about how campuses are becoming intolerable for Jewish students,” he says. “Most Jewish students, most of the time, just sail through university the same as everyone else, having a good time and getting an education.” Still, he acknowledges that for Jewish students who are impacted by, say, a professor like David Miller, “then it’s very damaging.”
This mirrors what a parliamentary task force reviewing the Jewish student experience in Britain found this past May. In their report they wrote that, “Jewish students generally have a positive university experience” but “are likely to mask their identity at times” due to “an underlying fear of being targeted for being Jewish or expected to answer questions about Israel.”
The findings of the independent investigation into antisemitism in the NUS set up in May 2022 were published in January, and they were damning. “For at least the last decade, Jewish students have not felt welcome or included” in the NUS, wrote investigator Rebecca Tuck. Most significantly, she wrote: “There have been numerous investigations and reviews which have made recommendations to rectify this problem, but their implementation has been inconsistent and institutional memories short-lived.”
She blamed the NUS for failing to show solidarity with Jewish students when faced with antisemitism—specifically Israel-related antisemitism. A Jewish delegate who attended a 2021 NUS conference for marginalized groups said they felt “very isolated and uncomfortable the whole time and completely on edge” due to Israel-related antisemitism. “I am not a Zionist, I even lean anti-Zionist, and even I found the undue focus on Israel and completely one-dimensional discussion of Israel to be completely over the line,” the student told Tuck as part of her investigation. “I was personally shaking and almost in tears as a result of my experience and was unable to engage with most of the conference as a result.”
Even when NUS has tried to show support for Jewish students, it has fallen short. Tuck pointed to a period in the spring of 2021 when antisemitic incidents spiked on British college campuses during an escalation of tensions between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations. A freshman at the University of Leeds, for example, answered his cell phone to a threatening, pre-recorded message that stated: “I want to shoot all your family, I know your father, I want to put a bullet in your head. I hate you; I hate the Jews.” Another Jewish student reported having been edited onto an image of a guillotine in a way that indicated the student was about to be beheaded. While this was occurring, says Tuck, it was “improper and offensive” for NUS to put the blame for antisemitism on Israel. For example, NUS published a “statement in solidarity with Palestinian liberation,” and only later tweeted out a “statement in solidarity with Jewish students,” which said: “We are deeply concerned to hear of a spike in antisemitism on campuses as a result of Israeli forces’ violent attacks on Palestinians.”
Tuck’s report is nonbinding, but the NUS has accepted its findings “in full” and “apologize[d] wholeheartedly and unreservedly to Jewish students.” A spokesperson for the NUS says the body acknowledges Jewish students have in the past been “let down by the very organization which should have been a home.” The NUS has promised to change the way conferences work, strengthen its relationship with the UJS, and support better education on antisemitism. It is also setting up an advisory panel to steer this work, “which will meet for a minimum of five years to ensure that institutional memory is maintained.” And following Tuck’s recommendation, the NUS will abide by the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Not all Jewish students agree with these determinations, but former UJS leaders such as Joel Rosen, who recently finished his term as UJS president, and Nina Freedman say that they are tentatively optimistic that these promises will lead to a better environment for Jewish students. But they stress that the UJS intends to stay in the national union. There have been points in time when Jewish students have discussed breaking ties, but in the end the UJS has always decided to remain in the national union and fight for change from within. To disaffiliate, Freedman says, would mean that Jewish students would lose their voice and could find themselves unable to prevent the NUS from becoming “even more radical,” she says.
Labour Students chair Ben McGowan is feeling more hopeful about the future of NUS. At this year’s conference in March, he sensed more optimism around the organization—that it has “started to do what it needs to gain back the trust of the Jewish community.” He believes the survival of the NUS is important to British students. “Students are consistently shut out of politics,” and it is the NUS that gives them a platform to advocate for their interests on their own terms. Historian Jodi Burkett agrees. For students with the drive to do organized politics, she says, the NUS is both the “official” and the “obvious” place to start.
Rosen reflects on what the NUS would have to do to be seen as an attractive space for Jewish students again. We would need to be seen “not as a problem to be dealt with, a PR crisis waiting to happen, as some kind of hostile foreign element, but as a natural and intrinsic part of the student movement,” he says. “But the onus isn’t on us to fix it. The onus is on the NUS.” The goal is for NUS to be a representative body in which all students feel welcome and included. The question remains whether this time change will be lasting or whether the cycle of hostility toward Jewish students will begin anew.
This story was supported by the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative
Opening picture: Wojtek Radwanski / Getty images
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