The National Union of Students has been branded a “hostile environment” for Jews in a damning independent report into antisemitism at the organisation stretching back more than a decade.
The report (which can be read in full here) by Rebecca Tuck KC found that the NUS had consistently ignored and dismissed antisemitism, often demoting complaints because of bias over the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Ms Tuck detailed accounts from Jewish students who felt “reduced to being only ‘the Jew’ in the room” and that they were “treated as a pariah at NUS events”.
They were “answerable for Israel, responsible to call out any antisemitism, seen to represent every single Jew in the student population, and stripped of any other characteristics”, she wrote.
The report said while NUS staff have challenged Jew-hate on the far right, they often failed to tackle or recognise antisemitism among pro-Palestinian activists. In that context, complaints of antisemitism among students came to be viewed as being made in “bad faith” and the report detailed numerous accounts of staff failing to challenge outright Jew-hatred or investigate allegations made by Jewish students.
Ms Tuck’s investigation was announced following outrage last year over historic posts by NUS president-elect Shaima Dallali and the suggestion by the then-NUS president that Jewish students could “remove themselves” during a planned performance by anti-Zionist rapper Lowkey.
Ms Tuck wrote that previous NUS reports into antisemitism were found not to have been implemented in full, with the NUS described as having a “short-lived” institutional memory.
Ms Tuck said were occasions on which Jewish students had been subjected to harassment related to their race and or religion as defined by the Equality Act 2010, with Jewish students experiencing “an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.
Joel Rosen, President of the Union of Jewish Students, said: “The report shows how NUS has failed generations of Jewish students. It is a searing indictment of anti-Jewish racism at the heart of student politics. It confirms that Jewish students faced harassment and discrimination and that complaints of antisemitism were dismissed and disregarded.”
The NUS itself described the 100-page report as “a detailed and shocking account of antisemitism” and has pledged to implement the KC’s recommendations in full.
Two independent investigations were announced by NUS in May last year. The first was into Ms Dallali. She was fired as president in November last year after an independent panel found “significant breaches of NUS’ policies”.
UJS president Joel Rosen interviewing Jeremy Corbyn at the Cambridge Union in June 2021 (Photo: courtesy)
The second investigation was into historic allegations of antisemitism and the wider culture of NUS after numerous allegations of Jew-hate emerged and pressure mounted on the organisation. The report was due to be published in October last year but was delayed twice to ensure it was thorough and had “the full impact it deserves”, according to the NUS.
This is the eighth report into NUS antisemitism since 2005, with many of the ensuing recommendations not implemented in full.
Ms Tuck issued a call for evidence in summer 2022 that saw 36 submissions made by organisations and individuals. She also interviewed 46 individuals and groups as part of the probe. Organisations submitting evidence included both Jewish and Palestinian groups.
The NUS was found to have a short institutional memory and, in many cases, records were only kept for only 18 months, which significantly hindered the investigation.
In this latest report, Ms Tuck not only examined the NUS’s failure over 18 years to adequately tackle antisemitism, she also detailed how it has persisted and set out numerous cases in which staff failed to challenge antisemitism or take action at all.
There is a number of disturbing examples. In July 2016, a Jewish student complained that someone on the NUS National Executive Committee (NEC) had referred to a “final solution” when discussing removing Jewish representation from the Anti-Racism Anti-Facism (ARAF) council. Despite the student demanding an apology, the NEC member refused, NUS staff failed to intervene and the complaint was held up as a “bad faith” allegation of antisemitism.
When a motion was proposed to mark Holocaust Memorial Day at the 2016 NUS conference, a speech against the motion was delivered that removed the Jewish nature of the Holocaust and was applauded by delegates.
Numerous students who submitted testimonies for Ms Tuck’s report described being made to feel that they had to represent all Jewish students and answer for the actions of Israel, and were told on many occasions that they were acting out of allegiance to the Israeli government or Mossad.
A Jewish student complained about being “too afraid” to take their place at the 2018 conference after a student who had posted blatantly antisemitic messages on social media three years earlier was allowed to remain at the gathering without sanction.
On another occasion, the NUS failed to act after a Jewish student was prevented from entering a bar hosting a union event because they were wearing a religious head covering.
When speeches unconnected to the Middle East were made at conferences, calls of “Free Palestine” were made from the floor and Jewish students found themselves being stared at.
Jewish students testified that they felt unwelcome in NUS “spaces” and, in some cases, were afraid for their safety.
They said they were reduced to talking only about their Jewish identities and there was a particular focus on Israel.
Ms Tuck wrote: “Regardless of what their personal views were about Zionism or Israel or Palestinian rights, assumptions were made about them because they were Jewish. This stereotyping is discriminatory.”
Today, @NUS_UK released a detailed report into Antisemitism in the Union -— Union of Jewish Students (@UJS_UK) January 12, 2023
"...NUS has failed generations of Jewish students. It is a searing indictment of anti-Jewish racism at the heart of student politics..."
More - https://t.co/fZbrfkj2L8 pic.twitter.com/XZMfC4QoYa
Another elected Jewish student wrote that when attending NEC meetings, they faced “malicious whispers as I walked into the room and pointed comments thrown in my direction”.
Students described how they were “gaslit”, “stared at” and left “in tears” at NUS events.
Ms Tuck also revealed a lack of antisemitism training for NUS staff, a recommendation made in 2005. A member of the union’s HR department sought to “introduce” training in 2011, and there may have been a further “introduction” of training in 2017.
Concerns were raised internally in the NUS about UJS-provided antisemitism training. The union’s submission to Ms Tuck’s investigation said that “several black women officers have informally let colleagues know that they felt extremely uncomfortable that almost all the examples of antisemitism in the student movement involve women of colour”.
However, during the antisemitism training sessions provided by UJS since 2019, only one example was raised involving a woman of colour and Ms Tuck found the allegation about the training sessions was “without foundation”.
She wrote that the NUS did not investigate it at the time but appeared to accept the complaint. She added: “Accepting the complaints of black officers and not investigating or probing them at all seems to show an attitudinal bias of not believing that complaints of antisemitism — if there is any connection at all to Israel/Palestine — are made in good faith.”
It was also found that the omission of “Judaism” as an option on NUS forms was not an “oversight”, as stated by the NUS, but was in fact only dealt with when there was significant press coverage.
During the May 2021 Israel-Hamas war, NUS received significant criticism after releasing a statement blaming “Israeli forces” for the spike in campus antisemitism and directing students towards controversial activist group Na’amod.
Ms Tuck found that there was a “political agenda being followed by the NUS elected officers who wanted to express their support for the ‘decolonisation campaign’ and to send ‘pro-Palestinian activists towards Jewish organisations campaigning in the same space’.”
Ms Tuck’s paper also addressed the 2016 House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report that sharply criticised historic comments made by then-president Malia Bouattia.
Ms Bouattia had described Birmingham University as a “Zionist outpost” and attacked “Zionist-led media outlets”. Ms Tuck set out how the NUS supported Ms Bouattia in “essentially rejecting” the committee’s concerns.
The report also addressed Ms Bouattia’s attempts to change the system for appointing members to the Anti-Racism Anti-Facism (ARAF) committee.
Previously, Jewish students decided who their representative would be, but Ms Bouattia supported proposals for the NEC to instead decide who would represent Jewish students.
A investigation into the conduct of Ms Bouattia was commissioned by the NUS; however Ms Tuck was unable to find “documents relating to this investigation”.
The KC also said that pro-Palestinian groups expressed serious concerns about the use of the internationally-accepted IHRA definition of antisemitism, claiming it had a “chilling effect” on pro-Palestinian activism and silenced legitimate criticism.
However, Ms Tuck found no examples of the definition being misused.
In a submission to Ms Tuck’s report, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign even “expressed concern” about putting in place training to ensure antisemitism is avoided when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict “because it looks at the issue through a chilling lens”.
Ms Tuck concluded that hostility towards Jews in the NUS “has not been challenged sufficiently robustly or proactively”.
Sophie Dunoff, CEO of University Jewish Chaplaincy, a national organisation supporting Jewish students on campuses across the UK, said that she was "deeply saddened, but unsurprised" to read the report, adding: "For too long, Jewish students have been taunted by NUS, with genuine complaints of antisemitism dismissed as 'oversensitivity' and ultimately ignored.
"We hope that the extent of the report’s dismal findings will finally enable NUS to acknowledge, accept and correct the intolerable anti-Jewish discrimination that has been allowed to fester within its organisation.
"We join the Union of Jewish Students in their call to action and urge NUS to adopt all eleven of the report’s recommendations post haste. NUS must use this watershed moment to rehabilitate itself through serious self-reflection and decisive action, thereby ensuring that it becomes an open and welcoming space for Jewish - and indeed, all - students.”
An NUS spokesperson welcomed the “clarity [the report] brings to enable to us to act with confidence to tackle antisemitism head on.
“Our priority now is to take forward the recommendations from Rebecca Tuck KC’s independent report to ensure that there is a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism across the breadth and depth of NUS.
“We have developed an action plan which will help us achieve this, but it is vital that we listen and learn from others.
“Whilst the independent investigation has come to its conclusion, we understand that this is an ongoing endeavour. We have rightly opened ourselves up to scrutiny and welcome the findings from the independent investigations.
“Our action plan is the next step towards earning and restoring trust with Jewish students and to ensuring they are able to feel safe and supported within NUS."
Education Minister Robert Halfon told the JC: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and never again should the main body that represents students across this country be a hostile place for Britain's Jewish students.
"It shouldn't just be a safe place, it should be a welcoming place, and so, I want to see what happens and what the NUS does to make sure the recommendations aren't just nice words on a piece of paper, but actually happen in practice."