The relationship between Jewish students and the National Union of Students has never been an easy one. From protests at Sunderland Polytechnic in 1985 to the election of Malia Bouattia in 2016, Jewish students have long found themselves facing various challenges within the organisation that represents more than 95 per cent of higher and further educational campus student unions in the UK.
However, in the run up to the 2018 National Conference of NUS, which took place in Glasgow last week, there were signs that things were changing.
Last year, spurred by the reaction against Bouattia’s election despite the evidence of her engaging in antisemitic rhetoric, candidates backed by Union of Jewish Students and Labour Students won five out of the six full-time NUS officer positions, including the presidency.
This remarkable change in just a year is significant, argues Liron Velleman, campaigns manager at UJS. He said: “In recent years there have been a number of examples where NUS have not been quick enough to deal with antisemitism” but noted a marked improvement. “We now have full-time officers who are willing to step up and deal with the issues,” he said.
Despite these positive moves, the challenges are far from over. “There is a long way to go before Jewish students are going to feel comfortable to engage with their national union,” said Velleman.
The conversation around the Israel-Palestine conflict is still a topic that attracts antisemitic language and tropes and being openly Zionist on campus can be difficult. As a left-wing movement, NUS should demonstrate that it can identify the differences between Jewish people and the actions of the Israeli government.
Jewish students involved with NUS have experienced abuse in person and on social media, including Izzy Lenga, NUS Vice-president for welfare. She has been a constant target on social media, often retweeting posts she receives to raise awareness of the serious nature of the abuse.
Whether Jewish students will reach a point where they are comfortably engaged in NUS politics is a complex question. Israel-Palestine is a hot topic on campus’ and even small slips into antisemitic language in the discourse can have an alienatong effect.
Emma Jacobs, UJS Board of Deputies member and University of Leeds NUS delegate, is certain that the only way forward is to work to engage Jewish students in every capacity in the NUS.
She acknowledged that “there may be some antisemitic rhetoric,” but recommended that the best thing worried students can do is “turn up and increase turn out… stand for roles, energise Jewish students on campus and get conversations started”.
Josh Holt, president of UJS, agrees. At times it has been hard for Jewish students to be involved in NUS but he stressed: “We must make change from inside the room rather than shouting from outside.”
He is unequivocal that moving forward “being a part of the conversation surrounding our own community,” within both UJS and NUS.
Anti-Jewish feeling still exists and it is naïve to think that in such a short time, the legacy of Malia Bouattia’s time in charge can be erased.
The shift within NUS and the visibility of Jewish students at conference and in representative positions is extremely positive — the extent of further progress, during Shakira Martin’s second term as president, will be the subject of close scrutiny.
Noah Libson is a first-year student at Goldsmith, University of London and a member of the UJS and NUS