Following the election of Malia Bouattia, the new president of the National Union of Students (NUS), my predecessor and I met her. Malia expressed her desire to work with UJS and Jewish students on the NUS Anti-Racism, Anti-Fascism (ARAF) campaign.
Yet last Monday, when she used her deciding vote to remove any involvement of the representative body of Jewish students, UJS, in choosing who represents them on the ARAF committee, Malia proved to Jewish students that she had no interest in working with them, let alone joining them in the fight against racism and fascism.
From kicking the National Front off campuses in the 1970s, to more recently confronting the far-right group National Action, UJS and Jewish students have been at the forefront of anti-racism and anti-fascism work over the past 40 years. In 2002, UJS and the NUS Black Students Campaign worked together on the Racism Will Tear Britain Apart campaign, which united the student movement in the fight against racism and fascism. Today, we could not be further from such a collaboration.
I know UJS and Jewish students will continue to fight against racism and fascism. But I also know that this will be harder in the framework of the NUS ARAF campaign. When the NUS National Executive Committee voted last week, it pushed Jewish students further away from the student movement and it is proving harder for them to justify any involvement in NUS’ structures. If any current or prospective Jewish student has seen the headlines from last week’s NEC meeting, I cannot blame them for wanting to steer clear of the student movement.
All too often in recent months, the actions and rhetoric of some have made NUS an unwelcome environment for many Jewish people. Why should Jewish students have to work that bit harder to have their voices heard? Why should they have to watch not one, but two, delegates, challenge an amendment calling on NUS to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day officially?
What will it take for the student movement to wake up and see that Jewish students are being pushed out? What do Jewish students need to do for the student movement to stand shoulder to shoulder with them? For too long, Jewish students have been left to fight this battle alone.
Despite 57 J-Soc presidents highlighting their concerns with Malia’s past rhetoric, including her use of terms such as “Zionist lobby” and “Zionist-led media”, 372 delegates still voted for her. That is more concerning; it shows a willingness to dismiss Jewish students’ concerns about someone who has said things that are questionable at best.
Why is it that when Jewish students raise concerns about anti-Semitism, these concerns are swept under the carpet? There seems to be a very literal hierarchy of oppression within the student movement — and Jewish students couldn’t be further down the pecking order.
However, precisely because of what has happened in the past six months within NUS, it could not be more important for Jewish students to get involved in the student movement and in NUS.
Jewish students still have many friends in the movement who are willing to stand up for them and will always stand with them in the fight against hate and intolerance.
Almost 500 students and sabbatical officers signed the open letter to Malia Bouattia; NUS does have a policy that commits itself to combating anti-Semitism and officially commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day; the vice president (Society and Citizenship) Rob Young, who is to start work with Jewish students and on Jewish student experiences on UK campuses, was one of two full-time officers who stood with Jewish students last Monday in their fight to choose who represents them on the ARAF committee.
As Hillel once said: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Jewish students need to be in the room to effect change and stand up for their interests. Hillel also said: “If not now, when?” Now is the time for Jewish students to get involved, engage with NUS and the student movement and make sure that they are represented on a national scale.
Last week’s NEC meeting showed that many are unwilling to listen to our concerns. However, I know that despite parts of the student movement continuing to try to push some Jewish students out, we will continue to push back that much harder.