This years conference saw Esther Offenberg announced as the winner of the election to be UJS President for 2019-20. Esther will take over in June 2019. Until then current President Hannah Rose and the team have plenty to put into practice after another dynamic day of debate and democracy as students shaped their union.
There was unanimous support for UJS to combat antisemitsm within NUS, have a UJS bloc at Pride, and make our union more inclusive of Sephardi and Mizrachi students, speakers and traditions. Unanimous backing was also given for UJS to launch a campaign tackling gendered antisemitsm, for J-Socs to collect and donate sanitary products to reduce Period poverty, and for UJS to add two new liberation groups (one for students who are Jews or Colour and one for those who grew up poor or working class), and for all liberation groups to be peer-led.
Students also voted unanimously to strengthen the fight against hate speech on campus by resolving for UJS to use “NUS’s no platforming policy to dictate the organisations it defines as hateful.” NUS’ list of no platformed organisations currently includes: Al-Muhajiroun, the British National Party, the English Defence League, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and National Action The motion also refined a too broad definition of hate speech from last year, as it noted that “Loose language (which) will not help us tackle the roots of hatred and could potentially lead to divisive partisanship if Labour were to be deemed ‘racist’ or the Conservatives were labelled ‘far-right’”
All bar two of the students present voted for UJS to continue to advocate for a Two State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continue to work with groups in Israel and the Palestinian Territories which support the two-state solution on trips, and reaffirm our opposition to BDS.
Jewish students voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm our adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, campaign in collaboration with J-Socs for Students’ Unions and Universities to adopt the IHRA definition, ensure the IHRA definition of antisemitism is not used to shut down legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and adopt the position that the IHRA definition is not complete without all its examples.
Sadly antisemitism featured in many of the discussions and another policy passed with clear majority support was on redressing antisemitism within the Labour Party. This policy mandates UJS to condemn antisemitism in the Labour Party, continue working with the Jewish Labour Movement, Labour Students, and other allies in the Labour Party who have stood up against antisemitism, continue delivering antisemitism training alongside JLM and Labour Students, and to support the efforts of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council to have their Spring 2018 demands met.
Also securing clear majority support was a policy on tackling the stigma surrounding men’s mental health and one on recognising the value of and continuing to run Birthright trips.
Policies that were due to lapse from 2015, where the lapse was successfully challenged were campaigning for mental health awareness and supporting smaller J-Socs.
A motion also passed for UJS to “support efforts by youth and student groups … to lobby Members of Parliament for a public vote on Brexit, campaign for the rights of EU students in the UK and UK students studying in Europe and encourage Jewish community voices to support a public vote on Brexit.”
UJS recognises that Jewish students have different views on Brexit and is aware that a motion failed to win support at 2015’s UJS Conference for UJS to campaign for Remain. We will enact the motion to support efforts by youth and student groups for another public vote on Brexit and will remain neutral on how people should vote if that vote is to take place.
The final motion to pass after possibly the most fractious debate and procedural manoeuvring of the day was on how we express our “proud Zionist voice … which supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” The vote acknowledged “the responsibility of defending and protecting Israel when it is slandered, but also ensuring that civil society organisations such as Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din and B’Tselem can continue to be part of and uphold Israeli democracy.”
The proposers of this motion were clear in their support for Zionism and Israel and those voting in favour did so as a contribution to UJS’ education and campaigning work. As the motion stated this type of engagement is “key to understanding how best to support Israeli democracy and legitimate criticism of Israel on campus”. This work complements our longstanding activism combating attempts to demonise or delegitimise the State of Israel and policies mandating UJS to combat BDS and promote a Two State Solution.
We are aware some students and fellow supporters of Israel may have concerns about one or more of the three organisations listed, or some of those affiliated or previously active within one or more of these organisations. We will continue to support the existence of such organisations that, as the motion highlighted, “service checks and balances on a democratic state are part and parcel of a healthy democracy”. As to how we enact including “meetings or activities with these organisations on UJS trips to Israel and doing events with them when representatives are in the UK” we will continue to ensure due diligence takes place before any organisation or speaker is included in our educational programming. Our education on these topics will robustly offer a balanced range of voices from within Israeli society.
Differences and sometimes divisions exist within our union. Esther won the election after three rounds and by a margin of 55 votes out of a total of 979 eligible cast. Part of the reason the election was so close also offers an insight into the various views and values that can be galvanised by passionate leaders. Esther and runner-up Lauren were able to mobilise support from each other’s campuses, from orthodox and progressive students, from left leaning and right-of centre students, from students whose priorities are Israel and from students who are more concerned with welfare and access to Jewish life on campus, from students who volunteering is mainly focused on their campus community and students whose activism is within NUS and national campaigns. Just as the far higher number of unanimous and overwhelmingly passed motions indicate, the election campaign and our democratic and representative union highlight how much more we have in common. This also serves to showcase how much we can achieve when, after passionately pitting ourselves against each other, we come together to protect and proudly celebrate Jewish life on campus.