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Antisemitism isn’t just an NUS problem

Latest Updates

Antisemitism isn’t just an NUS problem

Head of Campaigns, Guy Dabby-Joory writes in Wonkhe:


This article was posted on Wonkhe, which can be read here:

The past year has been pivotal in the fight against campus antisemitism.

Rebecca Tuck KC’s landmark report into antisemitism in the student movement set out in astounding detail the “hostile environment” created for Jewish students in these spaces, who had been harassed, abused, and demeaned.

At the same time, the Community Security Trust’s biennial report into campus antisemitism found that it had increased by 22% in two years, with Jewish students the victims of antisemitic intimidation, threats, and assault.

Put together, these two reports describe a challenging environment for Jewish students.

Not on my campus

It may be comforting to think that one’s own campus is not plagued by these issues. I’ve met SU Officers, student leaders, and staff members who’ve told me that antisemitism is not a problem at their university or college, even when I’ve heard opposite testimony from Jewish students on these campuses.

It’s easy to be ignorant about the scale of this issue, especially given that many Jewish students don’t feel confident reporting antisemitism that they’ve experienced. Worse still, when this antisemitism is reported, it may be brushed away by well-meaning people, who would define themselves as anti-racists but through wishful thinking believe that this antisemitism is in fact merely legitimate criticism, allowing it to fester unchallenged.

Since the publication of the Tuck Report into NUS and the student movement, a common position by SUs has been that while the issues plaguing their national union are of course horrific and must be combatted, these are isolated to the NUS.

Antisemitism in student politics, according to this view, rears its ugly head only at NUS conferences and committee meetings. Outside of this time, its perpetrators retreat into the background and stay silent.

Chilling effects

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, those responsible for antisemitism in the NUS spend their time outside of NUS spaces on their own campuses. Here, they intimidate and harass Jewish students who are in these spaces, preventing them from expressing themselves as they wish in student spaces.

One section of the Tuck Report which has particularly since stuck with me since its publication included testimonies from two Jewish students who had been involved with NUS:

I’m a Scouser. I’m a democratic socialist. I’m a feminist. I’m a student activist. I’m Jewish. I’m proud of every aspect of my identity, but I’m sick of being defined by that one facet. The Jewish part.

I never initially entered student politics to talk solely about Jewish issues, but my time in the movement became defined with defending Jewish students’ rights to even be in the room.

These testimonies really resounded with me. For so many Jewish students involved in leadership positions on campus – whether that be in political roles or in wider student life – their precious and limited time is spent fighting antisemitism and campaigning for Jewish causes, instead of the wide range of other things that they may believe in.

When a motion denying antisemitism comes to their SU’s Council, a Jewish Society (JSoc) President – elected on a platform of JSoc club nights and cheaper Friday Night Dinners – is forced to mobilise voters, search through procedural quirks, and make the case against this motion. SUs leave JSocs in the lurch, preferring to stay impartial, rather than providing allyship and empathy in difficult times.

Campus failures

This problem is not limited to SUs. Well-meaning university staff, entrenched in bureaucracy and neutrality, also often appear to be unable to empathise with Jewish students and the issues that they face.

A student’s Judaism is an annoying obstacle, meaning that lectures and exams have to be rearranged, and kosher food has to be sourced, instead of something which can be celebrated on campus.

Jewish student representatives are forced to navigate through committees, subcommittees, and supercommittees, have Teams call after Teams call, and wade through pages of complaints processes, on a regular basis. Support from a university’s administration can be hard to come by, and even harder to sustain from one JSoc committee to the next – even when the best intentions are there.

For many academics, antisemitism is a subject of scholastic research above all else. They take it as a given that instead of being a necessary and desperately needed tool for complaints staff to use when considering antisemitism, the IHRA definition is a fascinating document which must be reviewed, drafted and redrafted for years on end.

Lectures about the Israel-Palestine conflict are delivered emotionlessly and indifferently, while Jewish students feel unable to express their range of positions on the conflict in written submissions.

The Jewish student experience is once again, for many academics, trivial at best, and annoying at worst. Jewish students should be afforded equality of opportunity of course, but for many academics, adjustments to ease their experience should not be accepted

And yet, despite all of this, Jewish life on campus continues to thrive. One of the great privileges of my job at UJS is travelling to JSocs across the UK and Ireland. Student volunteers in Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, and tens of other JSocs, cook for hundreds of hungry Jewish students every Friday night.

Students throw huge club nights and celebrations of festivals, and donate hours of time to helping the most needy in their local communities. Antisemitism does not define Jewish life on campus, in spite of the best efforts of the antisemites and their enablers.

Yes, it can all change in a flash – as it did during the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza in May 2021 – but for most Jewish students, antisemitism is but a small part of campus life.

A JSoc Friday Night Dinner can feel like an oasis of familiarity in contrast to the harsh world of ignorance and prejudice in other campus spaces.

And so, we’re now at a crossroads in the fight against antisemitism on campus. Both the NUS and CST reports have important recommendations for those working in the higher education sector to take on.

This last academic year was also bookended by the release of a report by the Parliamentary Taskforce on Antisemitism in Higher Education, accompanied by a good practice guide including important steps and recommendations for all in the sector to take.

Jewish students and their representatives are always available for suggestions for steps to take. Measures as simple as attending a JSoc’s Friday Night Dinner, inviting UJS to deliver antisemitism awareness training for your SU team, university staff, or student population about antisemitism, and commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, go such a long way towards ridding our campuses of the scourge of antisemitism.

At this crossroads, it’s imperative to choose the right path – rather than staying in blissful ignorance.

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