On Monday night, Jews around the world will be sitting around their Passover Seder tables, telling the story of how the Jewish people left Egypt; how they left the house of slavery. As is custom around a Seder table, they will eat horseradish, or bitter herbs, to recall the bitterness of the hardships that their ancestors faced in Egypt.
Bitterness means different things to different people. There is a saying: 2 Jews, 3 opinions – we are a diverse community after all. Though based on the same historical experiences, each explanation of the bitter herbs on Seder night will be told in a very different way to the next. But one thing that will unite Seder tables is the fact that we, as a Jewish people, are sitting here today, free to tell the tale.
Whilst we are no longer in slavery, it does not mean that our lives are not embittered in some way. This is applicable for all people, but undoubtedly rings true for Jewish students; you only have to look at NUS’ research into their experiences to see that.
The Jewish student community is far from homogenous. It is extremely diverse, with the results reflecting the different experiences that depend on where you study, what you study, the activities you choose (or don’t choose) to take part in and so on. And just as our explanations of the bitter times in Egypt will be different around each Seder table, the experiences of Jewish students will be different.
But what the research does reflect is that, in general, universities, students’ unions and NUS are not doing enough for Jewish students. Whether that’s providing kosher food or accommodation, dealing with antisemitism, or providing safe spaces for respectful discussion about Israel/Palestine, it is clear that the Higher Education sector is way behind where it needs to be.
But it is no surprise that a large proportion (65 per cent) of Jewish students believe that NUS would not take issues of antisemitism seriously with almost half surveyed feeling uncomfortable attending NUS events. With a distinct lack of response from NUS in light of two investigations finding its President guilty of just that, can you blame them?
The report correctly states that NUS, UJS and Jewish students have a long-standing relationship but I am forced to wonder whether that will still be the case next Passover if Jewish students don’t feel like they can engage in the national movement. It is almost a year since 57 Jewish Society Presidents wrote to Malia Bouattia regarding concerns they had about her past rhetoric, and after a number of failed attempts at an apology, they and the Jewish students they represent are still waiting.
Additionally, it’s no secret that other NUS Full Time Officers have used antisemitic rhetoric, with many others across the movement denying that antisemitism even exists or suggesting, insidiously, that Jewish students insincerely use allegations of it to stem criticism of the Israeli government. NUS must realise that it has an institutional problem and it is one that they must fix.
This report is a first step towards doing so, and the recommendations have the potential to have a profoundly positive impact on Jewish student life. Since last April, there’s been a lot of rhetoric from NUS about antisemitism and about supporting Jewish students. It’s time that commitment was followed up by further action and that means the whole organisation, particularly the elected leadership.
Sadly the situation hasn’t got much better in 2017. Swastikas, allegations of collusion with foreign governments, speakers with a history of antisemitism, threats of Zionists being banned – the list goes on. Not a month goes by without another report of an incident on a campus.
But what this research has done is listen to Jewish students. After a year in which so many in the student movement decided to shut the door on them, this research gave Jewish students an outlet through which to explain their experiences of being a Jewish student on a UK campus in 2017.
In particular, it states in no uncertain terms the diverse opinion and experience when it comes to Israel and Palestine and BDS on campus. Whilst there’ll never be a solution that satisfies everyone, it is the responsibility of those that create the spaces that facilitate the discussion on such an emotive, contentious issue, to do it in a respectful way that eliminates discrimination and intolerance.
I’ve always been an optimist, but recent months have made me a cautious one. I believe that this report can act as a real catalyst for NUS, Students’ Unions and institutions to ensure that all Jewish students have a safe and positive experience on their campus. But that depends on the willingness of political leadership to leave their politics at the door and work for their membership. Let’s hope that doesn’t prove a step too far.