Campus moves to boycott Israel are “counterproductive” and “drive a wedge” between communities, the newly elected National Union of Students president said this week.
Tower Hamlets-born Wes Streeting, a Cambridge history graduate and for two years vice-president of education at the NUS, was elected to the position earlier this month.
He told the JC he had “always been strongly opposed to boycotts of Israeli institutions and universities. This is something I led on when I was vice-president for education and something I will take a hard line on.
“Academic boycotts are deeply counterproductive. Education is and should be one of the main reasons for peace and coexistence, and there are many examples of Israelis and Palestinians working together. Rather than driving a wedge between them, education is one way of doing that.”
While acknowledging and respecting the rights of unions to set their own policies, Mr Streeting, 25, called for “grassroots and national-level discussion as to why students think they [boycotts] are damaging”.
He also expressed opposition to “one-sided” campus motions to twin with Palestinian universities, adding: “People are often without a great deal of knowledge about it. I would strongly encourage student unions to twin with institutions from both sides. I certainly don’t believe in [the sort of] one-sided twinning that’s taken place. The heated debate that comes with it can make students very uncomfortable.”
Mr Streeting, a former president of Cambridge Student Union and a part-time member of the NUS executive, also spoke of his plans to work with the All-Party Parliamentary Committee against Antisemitism.
“I want to see more monitoring of incidents so we can track where and when it’s taking place and how to put a stop to it,” he said.
“What we can’t have is a situation where Jewish students feel unsafe on campus, or no-go areas for Jewish students.”
He is not Jewish, and did not encounter any antisemitism when growing up, but last year, while reading Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel on the London Underground, he was subjected to antisemitic abuse. “Someone made the instinctive assumption that I was Jewish and that it was therefore appropriate to give abuse. I think people look at antisemitism as something which only tends to be discussed in the context of Nazism, as something that came to a climax in the Holocaust and is not a problem any more. I will make people aware that sadly antisemitism is still there, it’s on the increase. It’s the responsibility of all communities to work together to stop it.
“One of the main problems with antisemitism is that it’s so insidious and pernicious, it can be difficult to spot. Debates, and certain political debates can slip over into antisemitic imagery and language. That can make it difficult to engage with.
“I have clearly got a strong track record of taking a zero-tolerance attitude to antisemitism wherever and whenever it occurs, and of working closely with Jewish students, nationally with the UJS and locally with Jewish Societies across the country. I was very proud to have the support of Jewish delegates in my election campaign.”
Responding to UJS concerns about university life clashing with festivals, Mr Streeting said: “I’ve encountered resistance among leaders and academics, giving the secular nature of institutions as a reason not to [comply with the Jewish calendar].”
While acknowledging the secular nature of universities, he added: “That doesn’t mean we should not be sensitive to people of different faiths and cultures, especially as universities are more diverse than ever.”