After four years of university and two years working for the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) I am now at the end of my time in the student movement. Campus doesn’t always have the best reputation amongst the Jewish community but I will miss my time within the movement even if I won’t miss all aspects of it.
While campus issues are rightly given a lot of attention by the community, it is always important to recognise that there is a vibrant Jewish life on campus. Whether this is a Friday night dinner, lunch and learn or a ‘Booze for Jews’, the vast majority of Jewish students are having a great time on campus and one of the many perks of my job is being able to still be part of that life two years after graduating. This is the part of my job that I have enjoyed the most but unfortunately my job has been to deal with most of the not so nice situations that make the headlines.
The main story over the past few months has been regarding the National Union of Students (NUS) and the election of Malia Bouattia as its incoming president.
There was wide concern ahead of this election which culminated in an open letter signed by over 50 J-Soc presidents calling on the now president-elect to clarify her past rhetoric. This rhetoric has included hinting that having a large J-Soc was problematic, and repeated references to the influence of Zionist lobbies.
The problems within NUS though did not begin with Malia and within my five years of involvement I have seen a significant shift. My first experience with NUS was at its annual conference in 2012 where the UJS stall was vandalised with anti-Israel stickers – the perpetrators chose to focus these stickers around the Magen David in the UJS logo which was particularly concerning. This incident could easily have put me off wanting to be associated with NUS in the future, but instead the reaction to it made me feel that the leadership at the time was on the side of Jewish students. Liam Burns, the president at the time, addressed conference the following day and made it clear that this action has no place in our movement.
Fast forward to the present day and the situation is very different. The 2014/15 NUS National Executive Council (NEC) were so obsessed with hating Israel that it passed two boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) policies within a year and their successors even attempted to boycott Coca Cola. When these incidents happened in the past, Jewish student activists could rely on the leadership to properly condemn it but the Jewish students who were with me at this year’s conference watched the majority of delegates vote for a president who still hadn’t fully addressed the concerns of Jewish students.
In the aftermath of these events we have seen a call on individual student unions to disaffiliate from NUS – many Jewish students have been at the forefront of these campaigns and I can’t blame them. NUS is clearly failing Jewish students by electing a President who uses conspiracy theories that even its own internal investigation found to be antisemitic. When those on NEC choose to play the politics of division by importing foreign conflicts onto our campuses and blaming what they see as anti-Muslim policies on’ Zionist lobbies’, NUS is failing all students.
Like all students, Jewish students can only benefit from being part of a strong national union but unfortunately they don’t have many options. Campaigners against disaffiliation have rightly said that our movement is stronger when we are united, but the truth is that we are not united. As universities with large Jewish populations like Oxford, Cambridge and Nottingham have opted to remain in NUS, Jewish students there and elsewhere face a choice. Do they decide to depend on other people to stand up for them or do they step up to the plate themselves and run to be a delegate so that Jewish voices are present at next year’s conference. We can’t guarantee that we will be listened to, in fact recent history would suggest the opposite, but we can make sure that Jewish voices never go unheard.
With the lack of a strong NUS that stands up for the interests of Jewish students, it is more important than ever to have a UJS that will fight for them. As long as Jewish students remain members through their local students’ unions then it is vital that UJS is still there to represent them at a national level to NUS. But Jewish students are not the only ones frustrated with the current direction of NUS and therefore I ask all of those who share our outrage to join with us in achieving change.
Campus is still a great place to be a Jewish student but it is impossible to ignore that student politics is not. The answer however is not just to avoid getting involved in it because if we allow an NUS without Jewish voices then we risk that hostile atmosphere spilling into the rest of campus life. Instead Jewish students through their national union, UJS, need to stand together and ensure that real change is achieved.