Revealed: NUS delegates called for expulsion of main Jewish group

In a non-binding break-out vote, students urged a ban on UJS over its support for Israel


Students rally outside the Department for Education

Delegates at a National Union of Students (NUS) conference voted in a breakout meeting to stop recognising their Jewish members’ main representative body because of its support for Israel, the JC can reveal.

The non-binding vote against the continued affiliation of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) was carried in a session at the NUS conference in Blackpool last month that began with calls to “dismantle” the Jewish state as a “racist project of colonialism”.

Lord Mann, the government adviser on antisemitism, said he was appalled by the move and promised it would not succeed.

“In the 1980s extremists started banning Jewish societies. We beat them. And today we will beat the extremists again. UJS will stand strong and proud and we will stand with UJS,” he said.

Fears that anti-Israel student activism in the UK has stepped up amid the US campus riots – with protest camps already set up at 15 universities – have prompted Education Secretary Gillian Keegan to call an emergency meeting with vice-chancellors this week to discuss what can be done to better protect Jewish students and staff.

At the Oxford protest camp, participants have been asked to agree that as a “colonised” people, Palestinians have the “right to resist against occupation”.

They have also been told they must support the Thawabit, a set of demands issued by the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1970s that would lead to the end of the Jewish state, including a right of return for six million Palestinian refugees and their descendants. One Jewish student was reportedly refused entry to the camp when he declined.

The anti-Israel protesters have already scored a significant victory at Goldsmiths College in London, where the university has agreed to review investment policies and its use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Examples of anti-Jewish racism in the IHRA definition include denying Israel’s right to exist and comparing the state to Nazi Germany.

Goldsmiths has said it will introduce scholarships for Palestinian students and rename a room after Shireen abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera reporter shot while covering violent clashes in the West Bank.

At the NUS conference last month, swastika graffiti was discovered at the venue along with several examples of the slogan “f*** Zios”.

The NUS, which announced an official “antisemitism action plan” only last year, apologised for the vote against the UJS, saying it had had only been an attempt to “take the temperature” and was non-binding.

Last week, protest camps at universities in the US were broken up by police amid violent scenes. The spread of what one supporter termed a “chain reaction” to events in America is causing intense concern in Whitehall.

More than 20 vice-chancellors and a UJS representative were set to attend the summit planned by the education secretary at 10 Downing St. She was also due to be joined by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – who opened Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting by saying there had been “an unacceptable rise in antisemitism on our university campuses” and that the vice chancellors would be told they must keep them “safe for our Jewish students”.

Keegan told the JC: “Antisemitic abuse and intimidation must not be tolerated on university campuses, and we will not stand by as Jewish students suffer. Freedom of speech and expression is vital to our universities, but it must not be used to harass and intimidate or cause significant disruption to students’ learning.”

Tory MP Robert Halfon, who recently stepped down as universities minister, told the JC: “The NUS said they have changed, but it is same old, same old. The question is whether or not NUS is institutionally antisemitic. It is up to them to prove otherwise. The treatment of UJS will be a seminal example.”

Unreported at the time, the move to expel the UJS took place at an NUS conference session on Palestine. It began with an invasion of the stage by a group of students claiming the only way to bring peace was to “dismantle the Israeli state” founded on “ethnic cleansing”, and that Zionism was a “racist ideology” and a “colonial project”.

One of the conference organisers then asked delegates whether the UJS should continue to be the “representative for Jewish students”.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Jewish student who was present told the JC: “The session had an incredibly hostile atmosphere, especially when delegates began to vilify the UJS. The proposal to disaffiliate from it was backed by a vast show of hands in support, which in a room of non-Jewish students felt isolating and wrong. Students with no skin in the game had decided that their place was to speak on matters impacting Jewish students.”

The following day the NUS issued a statement of apology, saying the vote had been “outside of our guidelines and rules”, accepting that the UJS was still recognised and that “the politics and actions of UJS are a matter for Jewish students themselves to discuss in Jewish only environments”.

But UJS president Edward Isaacs pointed out that only last year, in response to a damning report by Rebecca Tuck KC on antisemitism in student politics, the NUS had “committed to ensuring that Jewish students would be as welcome as any other student in their spaces”.

Yet at Blackpool, Isaacs went on, “Jewish students were faced with gross antisemitic rhetoric, with a swastika graffitied in the toilets, defence of Hamas in debates, and reports of Holocaust inversion from fellow delegates. For over 100 years, UJS has proudly been the representative voice of Jewish students across the UK and Ireland. It is reprehensible that delegates used NUS conference as a vehicle to seek to oust UJS and delegitimise the voice of Jewish students.”

One delegate who spoke at the conference was University of East Anglia union sabbatical officer Serena Shibli, who shared Instagram posts celebrating the Hamas massacre on the day it occurred. One hoped it would lead to “victory to Palestine, from the River to the Sea” and that the IDF would be “sent packing”. Shibli was approached for comment.

The JC has also seen comments posted in an NUS WhatsApp group during the conference. In one, a delegate claimed Zionism had nothing to do with Judaism because Moses had not heard of it. In another, the swastika found inked on a conference toilet seat was defended as an ancient Hindu symbol.

Other university camps have also featured extreme, anti-Zionist rhetoric. At Newcastle, a protester made a speech that decried the labelling of Palestinian “freedom fighters” as terrorists and called for support of the Houthis’ terrorist attacks on shipping, while others were shown on social media with placards glorifying the aircraft hijacker Leila Khaled and demanding an “intifada until victory”.

At Liverpool, protesters demanded an end to the university’s involvement with the “Zionist entity” – a phrase often used by Hamas. At University College London, where protesters were joined by Ghassan abu Sittah, the Palestinian doctor shown by the JC to have venerated terrorists, they chanted “resistance is justified when people are occupied”, and “hey ho Zionism’s got to go”.

In Manchester, the campers’ chant was “from Manchester to Gaza, globalise the intifada,” and at Sheffield, “say it loud and clear, we don’t want no Zionists here”. At several universities, campers are demanding an end to the use of the IHRA.

Isaacs told the JC that UJS was concerned by the “increasingly hateful language” emanating from the camps: “As Jewish students begin their exams, their peers begin the term with calls to ‘globalise the Intifada’, to support the Houthis in Yemen, and to not ‘engage with Zionists’.

“Universities must be places where Jewish students can be as welcome as any other student. There must be swift and decisive action from universities. We welcome the vice-chancellor roundtable at 10 Downing Street this week and we hope action will follow.”

An NUS spokesperson said the union remained committed to implementing the “antisemitism action plan” it instigated after the Tuck report, saying some delegates who behaved unacceptably at the Blackpool conference were removed, while others were facing disciplinary action through the NUS Code of Conduct Process.

The NUS also said in a statement about the UJS vote: “We are setting a boundary at conference. And that boundary is – the position of UJS, and its role representing Jewish students within NUS: these are conversations for a different space.

“We wanted to make sure everyone understood why: it is important that we all do, so this is why it’s out of bounds.The Union of Jewish Students is the representative body of Jewish students on our campuses, with a history older than NUS, and is recognised by NUS as an associate member.

“If Jewish students don’t agree with the political positions of UJS, that’s a conversation for Jewish students to have within UJS.

“How Jewish students are represented is not a question for this conference. NUS conference is an open conference, and questioning UJS’ place here is at odds with our policies, our values and our proud 100 year history at the forefront of liberation that a room at our national conference should have a discussion like that.”

In a separate development, it emerged on Tuesday that former NUS president Shaima Dallali, who was forced to step down in 2022 amid allegations of antisemitic comments, had accepted accepted tens of thousands of pounds as part of the settlement of her employment tribunal case against the union.

The first paragraph of the print edition of this article inadvertently failed to point out that the discussion on whether to stop recognising UJS took place in a break-out meeting, and that the NUS leadership refused to allow a debate in a full plenary session.  

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