I want to see real change from NUS - not just a fig leaf to cover bad habits

Exclusive: Government minister Robert Halfon says that he never imagined that he would question whether student life welcomed Jews

February 02, 2023 13:02

Rebecca Tuck KC’s report on antisemitism in the National Union of Students was published last month. It demonstrates conclusively that yet another area where ‘jews don’t count’ (to quote David Baddiel) is student politics. We don’t count when it comes to identifying and calling-out discrimination and insinuation made against us. We don’t get to define our own experiences, as other groups generally can. And we apparently don’t count enough to choose our own representatives. At least, not on the 2016 NUS Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Committee – where, against previous precedent, the Union of Jewish Students was cut-out of nominating the Jewish member.

The last few years has seen an undeniable rise in antisemitism, whether in mainstream politics (my line of work) or wider society. Just under two years ago we saw a horrific spate of attacks - which included an assault on a Rabbi in Essex, and antisemitic abuse being hurled from cars in North London and Manchester. The Community Security Trust has just published a report on antisemitism in higher education from 2020-2022. It shows a 22 per cent increase in reports of university-related antisemitic hate incidents over the past two academic years.

NUS anti-Jewish discrimination goes back much further. Ms Tuck’s report lists seven previous investigations and inquiries, internal and external, which stretch back to 2005. This suggests a recurring reluctance to follow through and fix the problem, which can be seen in higher education at large. Bristol University was slow to investigate Professor David Miller, a political sociologist who taught his theories on the control exerted by a powerful Jewish elite. Though he was eventually dismissed in 2021, there was no admission by the university of his antisemitism, and no apology to Jewish students required to sit through his lectures recycling weary tropes about a shadowy Jewish cabal running the world. This is unforgivable. Substitute any other minority in that last sentence, and there would be universal outrage.

You’d think NUS would want to protect Jewish students from this age-old bigotry. To demonstrate that newer generations of articulate, educated people can see antisemitism for what it is, and call it out.

Far from it. This blind spot is evident in NUS’s choice of president-elect in 2022, and in her tweets about Zionism and Israel. Shaima Dallali was suspended and eventually dismissed – but only after objections were raised by Jewish students.

The report details how NUS’s 2022 conference placed a conspiracist rapper’s need to express his views above those of the Jewish students who would hear them. The suggestion was made that Jewish students remove themselves to another room during his performance. Again, what other community would be told to remove themselves to avoid offence being caused? Only after an outcry did the rapper pull out.

I welcome this report, and the action plan NUS have drawn up in response to it. An advisory panel to oversee change for the next five years will hopefully give it some staying power in successive student leaderships. The language used, in both the report and the response, suggests the current National Executive Committee takes these issues seriously.

However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I will be looking for real, tangible change to demonstrate this is not just another fig leaf to cover bad habits. NUS must show it is prepared to welcome Jewish students – not just in procedural matters, but in basic courtesies. If other students with a strong interest in Middle East politics find themselves whispering behind their hands when a Jewish student enters the room (as described in the report) they should recognise this is inherently antisemitic. They should consider how it makes Jewish students feel. Only if the action plan is fully implemented will Jewish students feel truly valued members of the student community. NUS should not just be a safe place for Jewish students – it should be a welcoming place too.

It's astounding to me that in the last half decade, Jews have increasingly become targets of discrimination. As a proud Jewish Minister for Higher Education and Skills, I never imagined I would question whether student life welcomed Jews. Following Holocaust Memorial Day last week, let us hope this report finally turns the page for Jewish students currently applying to university.

Robert Halfon is the Member of Parliament for Harlow and a Minister of State at the Department for Education

READ MORE: NUS report shows Holocaust education has failed, says peer

February 02, 2023 13:02

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