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The National Union of Students Crosses the Rubicon for Jews

I work as an academic at a leading research university in London. Recently, a colleague in a lecture presented a quote from Angela Davis, professor and activist at the University of California, as part of a teaching session. It reads, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Reasonable enough one might think, and of course they are entitled to their opinion and perspective. However, Davis’ track record on “anti-racism” is not quite so clear cut. A supporter of the BDS campaign, she has also been outspoken in support for Palestinian terrorists Rasmea Odeh and Marwan Barghouti. Odeh murdered two students in a 1969 Jerusalem supermarket bombing and Barghouti killed five civilians in several separate attacks. After immigrating to the US under false pretences, Odeh was deported to Jordan in 2017. Davis was a vocal advocate for Odeh in the US – in 2015 she gave the keynote address at a Chicago rally defending her as a “political prisoner”.

I thought of this quote, as I read about the remarks on Twitter of the National Union of Students (NUS) Vice President of Liberation and Equality, Sara Khan, posted in May 2021, and reported only widely on in March of this year. The NUS as a national umbrella organisation represents students across the UK and has received considerable Government funding as well as contributions from students in affiliated local students’ unions.

Khan wrote:

“is it kind of… antisemitic to homogenise all Jews into an ‘ethnoreligion’? like, both erasing Palestinian Jews, & letting white supremacist/settler Jews off the hook?”

and

“…Judaism as an ethnoreligion refers to the shared heritage of all Jews as identity is passed down through maternal lineage but this is not the same as being a single ethnic group.”

She then surmised: “Imagine thinking the billions of Muslims whether South Asian or Arabic or Eastern European were the same ethnic group. I can’t.”

The renewed interest in NUS politics was sparked by the decision to invite Lowkey, a rapper and BDS activist, to the annual NUS Conference in March. Lowkey has been vocal in support of ex- Bristol University academic David Miller and ex-MP Chris Williamson, both close followers of the Corbyn approach to “anti-racism” and Jews. Lowkey has also been a promoter of 9-11 truther conspiracy theories, suggesting that “malign” forces such as the US Government were actually responsible for the collapse of the towers. When complaints were made about Lowkey performing at the conference, then NUS President Larissa Kennedy shockingly suggested that Jewish students who were concerned could segregate themselves in another room if they did not want to hear him. Then in late March, the NUS elected their new President Shaima Dallali. She had, in addition to a number of other problematic statements and actions about Israel and UJS, tweeted in the past “Khaybar Khaybar, ya yahud, Jaish Muhammad, sa yahud.”

This chant – which means, “Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning” – is considered as a battle cry when attacking Jews or Israelis. Khaybar was where according to Islamic tradition a tribe of Jews were defeated and killed by a Muslim army in the early days of the spread of Islam.

It is academics such as Davis, and Miller, and the thousands of others in the academy that support them that have promoted the argument that if I am a Jewish Zionist, I’m not only an anti-racist, I am in fact a particular type of racist – a hyper-white settler colonialist racist. It is they who have opened the awful space into which the NUS leadership have stepped. They have argued that that it is only if I am a good “Jew”, i.e. not a Zionist (perhaps this what Khan implies by “Palestinian Jews”), only then I can be in the community of the good. It is this climate, the one created by activists like Davis, and Lowkey and all the others who don’t see any elision in their thinking between antizionism and antisemitism, which allows the NUS “anti-racists” (although in this context the phrase loses all meaning) like Khan to locate Zionist Jews in the category of evil. It is this categorization that allows Khan to take the unbelievably arrogant step across the Rubicon of telling Jews that in fact their identity is a chimera and for Dallali to be elected even having effectively openly called for them to be killed. Just stop for a moment and think about whether anyone in a senior position in a national organisation might think of doing that for any other group.

My wife’s family left Iraq in 1971, soon after they had been stringing Jews up in the streets on trumped up charges of being Zionist spies. My children’s grandparents left everything behind – their property and business stolen from them. My wife’s mother never saw her parents again. Just one family out of the hundreds of thousands displaced by the Arab world, such displacement a by-product of the deeply ingrained antisemitism in those societies.

My grandfather was born on a boat coming from Poland in the 1910s- his mother undoubtedly fleeing the pogroms that killed hundreds of thousands of Jews before and after the Russian revolution – so terrified of the ingrained and violent antisemitism of Europe that she would undertake a sea crossing into the unknown at the very end of her pregnancy.

It is that deep antisemitism, in the Arab world, in Europe, that was the driver for Zionism, for Jews to stand and say, no more will we be at the mercy of the whims of others. We knew that when the Soviets talked of anti-racism, just as it was with Corbyn, it really meant everyone is OK except Jews, unless they are the small minority of “good” Jews who don’t believe in the pursuit of national self-determination and the state of Israel.

But the “anti-racist” left think it’s fine to tell Jews that their quest for self-determination as a people, their quest to escape Christian/European and Muslim persecution is “racist” and “settler/colonialist”. I think that in a sense Khan’s reference to “billions” is also a signal that implies something like – “you tiny insignificant people, we are sick of hearing about your oppression, about the Holocaust – how dare you try and corner the market on persecution”. As Melanie Phillips and others have noted, “exhaustion” with Jewish suffering is one of many drivers in modern antisemitism.

Imagine you are a Jewish student on campus in England and you read about what the NUS leaders said. These people who are supposed to stand for all their members. Imagine when you hear the NUS saying the Jews can segregate themselves in another room. Imagine knowing that the new NUS president effectively called for your people to be killed.

Imagine how it feels to hear this if you are a Jewish academic who does believe in the right of Jews for national self-determination. Imagine how it feels when you hear Davis being used as a source for anti-racism, or hear about campaigns to revoke the IHRA definition of antisemitism at my university and others. You know that actually your colleagues are the ones who created the environment in which this could happen.

Now try and imagine that the NUS had said similar things about Muslim students, or Black students, or Chinese students or anyone else. It’s true that we have heard effective messages of concern and protest about what is going on in NUS from Government ministers and some MPs. But within the sector? Listen out for the calls from the University Vice-Chancellors for the NUS Senior Leadership to resign. The calls that would as night follows day have come if they had said it about any other ethnic group. Listen to the calls from non-Jewish academics. Can’t hear them? We might be waiting a very long time.

About the Author
Joseph Mintz is Associate Professor in Education at UCL Institute of Education. He engages in research on inclusion, special educational needs, teacher education for inclusion and has led research projects funded by government and national agencies. He has written for the Jewish Chronicle, the Algemeiner and Times Higher Education. He regularly presents on issues of inclusion and special education in a range of national and international forums.
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