Student leaders pledge to fight campus racism

Manchester University’s growing reputation for harbouring antisemitism is facing a new challenge after Jewish candidates gained a third of the places on the student-union council.

The new team will have four Jewish representatives on the executive and another 14 on the student council. One of them — Rob Pinfold — is the new general secretary.

After the elections, Mr Pinfold was unequivocal about kicking out antisemitism: “For too long, Jewish students have seen their concerns swept away and ignored by the students’ union, their representative body,” he said.

“Antisemitism and racism will no longer be tolerated or ignored, in whatever form it may take. I and other members of the executive look forward to welcoming Jewish students back to the university.

“I anticipate a year of dialogue and debate, but with zero tolerance for racism. I intend to do all I can to make the University of Manchester the number one destination for Jewish students again.”

He said he would distance the new executive from that of last year. “We will not, under any circumstances, endorse the atmosphere of hostility and alienation that many Jewish students have felt.”

Mr Pinfold’s stance found immediate support from former Manchester student John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism.

“I am encouraged enormously by the leadership shown by the student union’s general secretary in his attempts to rid the campus of antisemitism,” Mr Mann said. “This is a beacon of hope and proves we can all be optimists about the fate of Jewish students on campus. I will be proud to work with Rob Pinfold and other student leaders in their fight to tackle antisemitism.”

Karen Davies, one of the Jewish representatives on the new executive, said: “There has been an air of hostility, but my view is positive. It’s been a pressure pot but it’s cooked now. The people who instigated it have left and there is an opportunity to get back to normality.”

But Rob Owen, the outgoing general secretary, who has been accused of unduly emphasising Palestinian concerns in campus politics, said: “There will always be people campaigning for international justice. Campaigns are not reliant on sympathetic executives but activists who are still there in Manchester.”

A note of caution came from student chaplain Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein, who said: “The new executive is only there for a year. Anybody who thinks that they can deflect the issue is remarkably naïve and ignorant of student politics in the UK over the past 20 years.

“The agenda on the far left is anti-Israel and antisemitism. Groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party and their fellow travellers continue to fester on campuses, pushing one issue to the fore of student life and short-changing the vast majority of genuine student causes.”

However, Jewish Society campaigns activist Naomi Balabanoff said a new union executive could effect lasting change.

“If they do a good job, similar people will be re-elected and extreme political views will be unelected,” she said.

    Last updated: 3:47pm, August 17 2009