As another academic year comes to a close, there is much to reflect on. Whilst day-to-day Jewish student life continues to thrive, it’s no secret that there have been challenges in the last year, particularly on Israel-Palestine and a very public discussion of anti-Semitism on campus. However, I’m confident that despite the difficulties, there is much to smile about and look forward to in September.
For a number of years, discussions around Israel and Palestine have led to deeply entrenched divisions on our campuses. But what we’ve seen in the last six to eight months is a change in the way that universities and students’ unions approach the subject. There finally seems to have been an acknowledgement that this is an issue that many students care deeply about. In light of recent incidents at UCL and KCL, London universities in particular are taking steps to promote positive and constructive debate that allows all ‘sides’ to be heard.
But this isn’t just about the ‘external’ debate with the wider student body. As important as the ‘external’ debate on Israel-Palestine is, the ‘internal’ within our diverse Jewish student communities must reflect the wide array of positions that exist amongst our student community on this and many other issues. It’s time we step out of our echo chambers and embrace debate.
I take confidence from initiatives like the Bristol Israel-Palestine Discussion Group, not only because it’s my old university, but mainly because it involves students of all backgrounds and all politics coming together to discuss the tough topics. More initiatives like this and I’m sure we’ll see improvements in the ‘external’ as well as the ‘internal’ debates on Israel-Palestine.
However, my year seems to have been dominated by the regularity of incidents occurring on campuses; of headlines in national newspapers about national representatives using anti-Semitic tropes; and by which members of the student movement have been quick to sweep incidents under the carpet when they have arisen.
One would’ve hoped that the Home Affairs Select Committee report in October into anti-Semitism in the UK would’ve been a turning point. Instead, Jewish students were met with a half-hearted statement from NUS and an open letter signed by 300 ‘student leaders’ that questioned the legitimacy of their concerns about anti-Semitism.
Fast forward a few months that included swastikas on campus, Holocaust denial literature being handed out, and a programme that took tropes about Jewish or Zionist power to a whole new level, and it very much seemed like anti-Semitism was becoming a dividing line between political groups. Mirrored in the Labour Party, anti-Semitism had become a left vs right issue. For me, any form of racism transcends factional lines; it transcends politics. Yet in a student movement claiming to be progressive, built on anti-racist values, it was the Jews losing out once again.
Whilst swastikas were appearing more regularly, they are easier to recognise and acknowledge as anti-Semitic in nature. Swastika = Nazi = anti-Semitism – it’s simple. But the failure of the left to acknowledge that anti-Semitism has the ability to permeate from within its own ranks has been its ultimate blind spot.
When Jewish students saw, on the eve of the recent NUS National Conference, that other election candidates had previously made antisemitic comments, they were forced to ask themselves: was it happening again?
But what transpired over the next three days was proof that the tide is turning. Four out of the six President and Vice President Election hustings included questions about Jewish students and anti-Semitism, the majority of which received answers that displayed a significant move away from the denial and questioning of anti-Semitism that we’d seen in the last year in the student movement. Even candidates who had previously made anti-Semitic comments made it very clear that they would shape a national movement that didn’t see Jewish students as a side note – one that actively made sure they were an integral part of it.
With a national leadership that Jewish students can have faith in, there’s a lot to smile about. In addition to electing the first Jewish Vice-President since 2013, NUS now has arguably the most far-reaching policy on anti-Semitism, which, if implemented, will go a long way to ensuring that NUS tackles anti-Semitism effectively on campus.
I am proud that, in the last year, UJS has been running sessions for NUS, students’ unions, universities on tackling anti-Semitism and understanding Jewish students. Alongside the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Students we have been running similar sessions for Labour clubs across the UK to over 350 student leaders this year. The regularity of reporting of prior anti-Semitic comments being made by student leaders demonstrates a need for students and staff to have a greater understanding of these issues, and my successors look forward to visiting more campuses in the coming academic year.
I’m also extremely proud that UJS continues to work hard to ensure that student leaders across the country are well-informed on various issues. Whether that’s running training sessions on tackling anti-Semitism, facilitating educational trips to Poland or engaging student leaders on Israel-Palestine, it’s UJS who are consistently defending and standing up for Jewish students.
But the Jewish student experience doesn’t start or end with anti-Semitism. Having spent the year tackling it on our campuses and in the student movement, I’m hopeful that a more effective approach to addressing anti-Semitism in our movement will enable Jewish students to focus their time and efforts on issues other than their own oppression. Whether that’s strengthening relationships with other faiths, campaigning for greater food and accommodation provision, or celebrating Jewish identity – there’s a lot more to Jewish student life on campus than anti-Semitism.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we can take anything for granted. There is now a real opportunity to ensure that the student movement takes anti-Semitism seriously, embedding proper processes in universities and students’ unions that keep Jewish students safe on their campuses. I’m looking forward to watching from afar as UJS continue to work with sector partners across Higher and Further Education to achieve this.