It’s just over two weeks since delegates to NUS National Conference elected their new national leadership for the next academic year. In that time, we’ve seen the National President-elect make clear her opposition to anti-Semitism and her commitment to ensuring a welcoming a safe environment for Jewish students. Makes a change from this time last year, eh?
At the same National Conference, delegates voted in favour of a motion that, if implemented properly, will take significant steps in the fight against anti-Semitism on campus, including NUS adopting the IHRA definition for anti-Semitism. Only moments later, it was announced that Izzy Lenga had been successful in her candidacy for Vice President (Welfare), the first Jewish student to be elected as an NUS Vice President since 2013. After a year when Jewish students had been forced to see allegations of anti-Semitism week after week sprawled across national and student newspapers, it was nice to have a few things to smile about.
But it all could’ve been so different.
This time last year Jewish students had a decision to make. In the words of The Clash, ‘should I stay or should I go?’
After having watched delegates elect an individual in the knowledge that they’d previously made anti-Semitic comments; having heard two delegates speak against an amendment to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day; and having seen others downplay the issue of anti-Semitism, you’d have forgiven Jewish students for wanting to stop going to NUS events, to cease their role in shaping the national student movement. It didn’t surprise me that there were so many Jewish students at the forefront of disaffiliation campaigns in their students’ unions. It was their right as Jews to not stand for what they had seen at last year’s National Conference and to demand better of their representatives.
There were many instances throughout the last year where it would’ve been easy to walk away. The poor response from NUS and members of the student movement to the Home Affairs Select Committee report, the problems associated with the NUS anti-racist, anti-fascist campaign, and the continued concern in regards to the National President’s failure to apologise for her past comments.
I couldn’t be prouder to be sitting here today because there were Jewish students who decided that being in the room meant more than sitting outside. That despite everything, we couldn’t give up. Despite NUS’ inability to deal with issues of anti-Semitism, Jewish students didn’t turn their back on fighting hatred within the student movement.
I remember saying to students this time last year that this coming year was an opportunity. It was an opportunity to empower, to become empowered.
And as always, Jewish students delivered.
It never fails to amaze me the commitment and dedication that so many have for improving life on campus for their peers. Whether that’s fighting anti-Semitism, ensuring religious freedom, improving interfaith relations, securing kosher food, defeating BDS – Jewish students continue to deliver.
And they delivered a fortnight ago when so many played an integral part in securing the successes that I outlined at the top of the page. The fact that almost every election candidate for the President or Vice President positions gave a positive answer about tackling anti-Semitism during National Conference is a reflection of the outstanding work that Jewish students have done to ensure that anti-Semitism and Jewish student welfare have remained issues at the top of the national agenda. Four out of the six informal hustings for these positions asked questions about Jewish students and anti-Semitism. Things might not be perfect, but Jewish students are at the forefront of leading that change for their peers locally and nationally.
But the successes that Jewish students had two weeks ago are definitely not the end; they are just the start.
Regardless of a new leadership, Jewish students are still facing specific challenges that need to be addressed. NUS can no longer ignore the issue of anti-Semitism, especially following a number of different reports that have stated that further action is needed, particularly ending a culture that wilfully tolerates anti-Semitism. The sector cannot simply sweep under the carpet the fact that reported incidents of anti-Semitism on campus doubled in 2016. It’s time that concrete action was taken to ensure all Jewish students have a safe and positive experience on campus. At UJS, we look forward at being at the forefront of that work.
As always, it will be Jewish students leading the way because that’s the only way they know – standing up and delivering for each other.