Several prominent Jewish organisations and community members have warned the National Union of Students (NUS) over its “vague” plans to combat antisemitism in the wake of a bombshell report that said the student organisation was a “hostile environment” for Jews.
In an open letter submitted to the confederation of over 600 UK students' unions on Thursday, signatories expressed appreciation for the NUS’ “endeavours to protect Jewish students and resolve this flagrant history of discrimination,” but offered a host of recommendations for its “vague”Antisemitism Action Plan.
The recommendations drafted by the Zionist non-profit Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis UK (CAMERA UK) and the UK branch of their university programs organisation CAMERA on Campus, have been endorsed by a string of high-profile signatories. Supporters include Jewish service body B'nai B'rith UK, pro-Israel association UK Lawyers For Israel Charitable Trust, the National Jewish Assembly leadership body, and Harif, a British charity promoting the history and culture of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.
Crossbench peer and former Principal of St Anne's College, Oxford Baroness Deech, Chair of the Birmingham and West Midlands Jewish Representative Council, Laurence Julius, and the University of Roehampton's Jewish Resource Centre Chair, Judy Weleminsky were among the individual signatories.
The letter urged the NUS’ planned Advisory Panel and NUS leaders to “meet with Community Security Trust (CST) bi-annually to discuss trends and specific incidents of antisemitism against students, as well as options for adequately and justly resolving antisemitic incidents and combating negative trends.”
The CST provides security and advice to Jewish communities across the UK along with researching antisemitism. Its latest study reported a 22 per cent increase in university-related antisemitic incidents between September 2020 and August 2022.
CAMERA UK also recommended that the Action Plan, and its implementation, must be guided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, and that “NUS and SU staff receive adequate and sufficient training on antisemitism, with a basis on the IHRA definition and examples, and guided and/or provided by respected Jewish organisations.”
Cautioning against NUS’ plans to reinstate its Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism (ARAF) Committee as “a dedicated place for Jewish representation” and tackling antisemitism, CAMERA UK suggested the committee “will open the door for the politicisation of and distraction from efforts to combat antisemitism and other forms of racism.”
“If it is decided to keep this committee it should be renamed and given a carefully crafted mandate to ensure racism in all its forms and manifestations, and from all sources, is addressed in a professional, non-partisan manner,” it continued.
In 2016 the NUS voted against permitting the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), the leading representative body for Jewish students in the UK, to help choose a Jewish member for the union's Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism (ARAF) committee.
CAMERA UK also recommended that Jewish students, rather than the NUS’ National Executive Committee, should be able to elect a representative for the ARAF.
It took aim at the NUS’ commitment to implement a bank of “expert facilitators” to support debates and campaigns regarding Israel and Palestine within NUS or SUs. CAMERA UK warned that a “bank” of approved facilitators could “enforce an orthodoxy of belief or provide an appearance of legitimacy and approval for controversial individuals and/or beliefs.”
They said any group of “expert facilitators” approved by the NUS should include people with a “true desire for a peaceful solution,” and that said experts must not support the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement that advocates ending all ties with Israel, or “undertake a one-sided approach when discussing the conflict”.
The letter also pressed that “due diligence needs to be undertaken to ensure that no one in this bank of individuals is associated with organisations that actively fund harmful activities against Israeli citizens,” adding that theNUS must “address the right to academic freedom and free speech of Jewish and Zionist students. No student should be penalised for their deeply held beliefs.”
Earlier this month, the NUS’ published a long-awaited independent report into antisemitism at the national student union, following a months-long investigation by Rebecca Tuck KC.
The report slammed the NUS as a “hostile environment” for Jews and said the organisation had consistently ignored and dismissed antisemitism, often demoting complaints because of bias over the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
It quoted extensive testimony from Jewish students which detailed a vast number of alarming and widespread instances of antisemitism. They felt “reduced to being only ‘the Jew’ in the room” and that they were “treated as a pariah at NUS events”.
Baroness Deech told the JC: “The NUS’s own plan is too generalised. So I welcome CAMERA UK’s emphasis on the specific adoption of the IHRA definition, combating BDS, and training.
“The students whose disgraceful conduct was detailed in the Tuck Report had Holocaust education at school and clearly it has failed. It needs to be re-shaped as education about Jews, their history, why antisemitism exists and how it contributed to the Holocaust, its persistence today including antizionism, the Jewish attachment to and need for Israel.”
Gavriel Solomons, a final-year student at the University of Hertfordshire told the JC he signed the letter, “because Jewish students are justifiably wary that change is only being implemented halfheartedly under public pressure, that it perhaps will only be surface level and we might see those reforms evaporate as antisemitism in NUS leaves the public spotlight it is currently under - or even have to go through this whole episode all over again a decade on.
“It is vital that NUS institutes the report's recommendations in a way that will allow Jewish students to have a permanent stake and say in how the Union combats antisemitism, and that any resources or programs instituted as a result of recent events are tailored to reflect the interests and concerns of Jewish students.
Mr Solomons, who is one of three students currently campaigning for the UJS presidency said, “CAMERA UK's letter clearly outlines a path toward deep-rooted reform and I was therefore glad to sign it. Jewish students must be safely assured that the pain and stress we've collectively experienced with NUS over the last few years is not going to repeat itself yet again.”
A spokesperson for CAMERA on Campus UK said: “We appreciate the seriousness that is being taken surrounding the findings of antisemitic abuse within NUS and welcome the NUS Action Plan and their desire for feedback from relevant individuals and organisations.
“We felt the parts of the NUS’ plans were vague and left room for continued antisemitic rhetoric or behaviour against Jewish students so we highlighted the need for in-depth training for NUS & SU leadership regarding the IHRA definition and the need to educate the antisemitic history of the BDS movement.”