No "safe space" for Jews at British universities.
In the United Kingdom, the Jewish student community is being increasingly shut out of the decision making process concerning identifying and combatting anti-Semitism on university campuses. Recently, the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK approved a motion which guarantees minority groups, including the Jewish community, representation on the Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism (ARAF) committee. The ARAF is the union-commissioned campaign to address racism and anti-Semitism on campus. Problematically, representatives will be elected exclusively by members of the NUS National Executive Committee (NEC), meaning that the Jewish representative to the committee who addresses anti-Semitism on campus will not require the approval of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). The UJS, representative of over 8,500 Jewish students, had traditionally been a major player in determining the Jewish ARAF committee member. Therefore, the decision, while ensuring the Jewish community representation on the committee, excludes it from the election process of the representative.
Although the amendment to the ARAF motion recommends that the executive committee consult the UJS before electing the Jewish representative, it is equally possible that they will ignore Jewish organizations’ recommendations and elect a representative that upholds their own agenda. So, the crux of the issue is whether the NUS and its executive committee can be trusted to elect a Jewish representative to the ARAF committee that truly represents the Jewish student community and understands the nuances of modern-day anti-Semitism.
The Jewish community already has ample reason not to trust the NUS. In April 2016, the organization’s membership elected Malia Bouattia their president, despite allegations of anti-Semitism against her serious enough to prompt demands and successful motions in a number of universities to disaffiliate from the union. Bouattia has largely ostracized the community, through her public condemnation of Israel and "Zionists," so it should be no surprise that Jewish community don’t trust the executive committee under her leadership. Therefore, the decision to empower the NUS with the authority to appoint the Jewish ARAF committee representative is immensely troubling to the Jewish student community, regardless of which “interpretation of policy” Boauttia or her organization says it will enforce.
Does this mean, then, that the NUS is no longer committed to fighting anti-Semitism on UK campuses? Of course not. However, what it does mean is that its ability to effectively realize those commitments will depend largely on whether the elected representative for Jewish students is actually representative and appreciates the nuances of modern-day anti-Semitism. The NEC now has the power to elect a Jewish representative who, for example, supports Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) or dismisses the subtler forms of anti-Semitism, i.e., the demonization and delegitimization of Israel. Crucially, without the mandated input of the UJS, the 8,500 Jewish students are simply excluded from the election, and so their representative will not be accountable to them.
Ultimately, Jewish students are becoming disenfranchised from the NUS, and now all the more so given that they have a diminishing role in determining what constitutes anti-Semitism. In addition, the fact that the president of the NUS singles-out Israel for public condemnation while remaining silent on colossal human rights violations by other nations sets an example that normalizes the demonization and delegitimization of Israel. As a result, it could be expected that anti-Zionist attitudes may well grow on campuses around Britain, and anti-Semitism could increase surreptitiously under that banner.
More worryingly, the NUS decision is only the most recent of a series of actions by the political left-wing in Britain that disaffects a large part of the Jewish community. Sympathy for the Palestinian cause, among other factors, has caused the left-wing to place itself ideologically against Israel and Zionism. This has created a palpable friction between British Jewry and left-wing political organizations, particularly the Labour Party and the NUS. This friction has been exacerbated by deeply concerning comments from Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and Malia Bouattia, which have provoked the Jewish community. Had Bouattia presented an alternative motion which would re-empower the UJS to determine the Jewish representation to the anti-racism committee, it would have partly redeemed the student left-wing despite their anti-Israel rhetoric, or least kept the Jewish students silent on the matter of anti-Semitism in her organization.
As things stand, however, her vote to formally drive a wedge between the UJS and the appointment of a Jewish representative to the anti-racism committee, alongside her support for BDS and public condemnations of Israel, do precisely the opposite. It is evident that any real NUS effort to tackle anti-Semitism on campus requires close cooperation with the wider Jewish student community. Therefore, on a committee mandated to tackle all forms of racism, the Jewish representative should be subject to the approval or veto of the Union of Jewish Students – a body actually representative of the will of Jewish students. Ultimately, denying the UJS such influence on the committee mandated to tackle anti-Semitism while at the same time normalizing and perhaps even encouraging anti-Zionism communicates loud and clear that British Universities are becoming less and less a safe space for Jews.
Robert Lewis is a British student and an intern at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).