I am not a great fan of collective letters. Not because they shouldn’t exist but because journalists — even those whose work involves writing opinion pieces — should steer clear of over-identifying with a cause or a group. But the last fortnight has seen me sign two. The first, about strengthening Freedom of Information rights in the UK was linked pretty directly to my job. The second was all about my past.
Between 1980 and 1982, before mobiles roamed the Earth, I was president of the National Union of Students (NUS), succeeding my friend Trevor Phillips (he wasn’t a knight back then).
I was a Eurocommunist and part of an alliance involving Labour, Liberal and “non-aligned socialists”, which had run the NUS nationally for a few years.
People sneer at student politics, and I understand why. But a sophisticated organisation elected and run by students is — for all its faults and occasional excesses — a rather wonderful thing. It’s not just a training ground for future politicians, communicators and administrators, but gives young people the experience of democracy linked to responsibility. By my mid-20s I was making decisions that people mostly don’t get to make until middle age, if ever.
As I said, we were a fairly left-wing bunch, but above that we had knocked into us the understanding that — in Roy Jenkins’s famous metaphor spoken to Tony Blair — we were carrying a Ming vase across a slippery floor. The NUS was always going to be a vulnerable institution, but it did good work for students and whatever our own politics, once we were elected to office we were going to act to protect it.
This is one apparent point of departure between the past and the present and explains why I signed a second letter this week, this time from former NUS presidents to the current outgoing one, strongly advocating a change of approach towards Jewish students.
Partly because it’s the right thing to do, and partly because if this doesn’t happen I fear for the future of the NUS.
Put simply, someone dropped the vase.
Some student politics is carried out at the level of hysteria, and always was. The absurd over-statement planted confidently in the thinnest soil of understanding is not uncommon. People are acting out.
Nor is this just a youthful problem. Reading the “dossier” on NUS published recently by the Campaign Against Antisemitism I was astonished to find a section on the NUS in the 70s and early 80s proclaiming that under “Marxist influence” the union advocated the causes of gay rights, feminism and black nationalism” (this latter can only mean opposing apartheid in South Africa).
And they “not only did not include Jews in their liberation campaigns but they were actively regarded as being part of the racist or fascist enemy”.
This will surprise the members of UJS (Union of Jewish Students) who I and my predecessors met regularly and whose campaign for Soviet Jewry I endorsed. It is ahistorical nonsense and I look forward to an apology.
There were certainly ultra left “anti-Zionist” student groups but they never managed to be elected to the top posts in the NUS and we fought any and all of their attempts to foist their crude anti-Israel views, either nationally or in local student unions.
But, after many intervening years where NUS leaderships understood what we understood, this appears to have changed.
For example, back in the day we would have described the campaigning rapper Lowkey as a “headbanger”. A writer of troofer poems about 9/11, a man who sees the hand of Zionism in everything, a serial consort of conspiracy theorists, a comfy co-guest on Press TV programmes featuring the most extreme anti-Israel figures in Britain, any suggestion that such a person would have been invited to address a conference of the NUS when I was president would have been regarded either as a joke or an attempt to destroy the Union.
Yet this year invited he was. And when Jewish students (and, I imagine, other students) objected they were advised that during this idiot’s address they could go to a designated safe space and sit it out. Oh, the cloth-ear! If there’s one thing Jews collectively know about it’s safe spaces — those others create for them and the one they created for themselves. In the end Lowkey disinvited himself, but not until the NUS leadership decried criticisms of him as being “harassment and misinformation”.
Now the NUS has an incoming president whose teen indiscretions include tweeting a violently anti-Jewish battle chant (a revelation greeted with the usual declension: how dare you excavate my utterance history, it was a long time ago, I apologise etc), more recently bigging up that religious bigot al-Qaradawi and very recently fundraising for CAGE. In other words, her record is a bit of a nightmare.
The results are that, for the sake of the Union she now leads, she has to be super-scrupulous not to continue to make sections of her membership feel deeply alienated. And she has some big bridge-building to do.
Others may not care, but I really hope she does it.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed the source of the Tweet referenced as being from a passage in the Quran. We have amended accordingly.