NUS reaches a settlement with Shaima Dallali

The National Union of Students has settled with the former President that it sacked over claims of antisemitism. Jim Dickinson considers the implications

The National Union of Students has agreed a settlement with former president Shaima Dallali, who was dismissed over allegations of antisemitism back in November 2022.

The case was due to be heard at the London Central employment tribunal this week.

A joint statement confirms Dallali’s solicitor’s statement from last May – that NUS accepts that pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist beliefs may be protected beliefs, and that as a private individual Dallali is, and as President of NUS was, entitled to hold those protected beliefs.

The terms of the settlement are confidential – although any financial implication will only add to the £1m bill that NUS has racked up for running the investigations both into Dallali and wider antisemitism already disclosed in its 2022 and 2023 accounts.

There will also likely be substantial legal bills attributable to this financial year.

Both parties will be hoping that the settlement draws a line under a protracted, bitter and unpleasant episode for national student representation, as NUS battles to restore its reputation having been formally “disengaged” with over antisemitism by the Westminster government two years ago.

The danger is that with impending regulation both on harassment and freedom of speech set to be imposed on universities and its constituent member unions, the judgements made over allegations of antisemitic conduct get even harder to make.

Four tweets

We covered in some detail the government’s disengagement decision back in May 2022, NUS’ announcement that it was to commission an independent, QC-led inquiry into antisemitism back in June 2022, Dallali’s ousting in November 2022 and the publication of the wider investigation back in January 2023.

Given it’s a settlement, we don’t have the sort of detail that has accompanied a slew of legal cases over protected beliefs in recent months – but it at least appears that the nub of the case concerned a set of three tweets posted by Dallali prior to her election, and another posted more than a decade prior.

In its press release on the instigation of tribunal proceedings from last year, Dallali’s law firm Carter Ruck suggested that the investigation had merely found the first three tweets to be “discourteous”:

…despite the fact that they simply (Ms Dallali maintains) reflected engagement in what is a mainstream controversial debate (particularly in the context of student politics).

A fourth tweet had been published by Ms Dallali more than a decade earlier – when in the midst of the 2012 Israeli operation in Gaza, Dallali tweeted an expression (in Arabic) that she maintained was often used in her community in relation to Palestine, which she said did not appreciate at the time would be understood as antisemitic – and did not intend it that way.

Carter Ruck said that when Dallali later stood for office (having served as President at the students’ union at City, University of London), she had no memory of the tweet – and that as soon as it was drawn to her attention, she removed it and apologised publicly:

She understands and wholly disavows its meaning. She has apologised fully and repeatedly since, much as both before and during her tenure as President of the NUS she has repeatedly made clear her opposition to all forms of racism, including antisemitism, while continuing to campaign to denounce the plight of the Palestinian people.

The joint statement on the settlement makes reference to the tweet:

As has been noted repeatedly in the media, NUS was very concerned by a tweet that was written by Ms Dallali when she was a teenager, before she was even a student, in 2012. Ms Dallali has accepted that while it was not her intention, the tweet was antisemitic. Both parties accept that Ms Dallali has repeatedly apologised for that tweet.

The statement also acknowledges the impact of the case on Dallali personally:

Throughout this matter, Ms Dallali has suffered truly horrific abuse, which has included death threats, threats of sexual assault and flagrant Islamophobia. This is wholly unacceptable, and NUS categorically condemn[s] it. Ms Dallali now has the right to move on with her life and her career free from harassment or abuse.

Dallali has also issued a personal statement through Carter Ruck:

I am pleased that we have been able to resolve matters and that I can put this matter behind me. I am an anti-Zionist and a proud pro-Palestinian. Following today’s settlement, I look forward to being able to focus on continuing to dedicate myself to the Palestinian cause and to serving my community. I am immensely grateful to those who have supported me during this difficult chapter in my life and I am pleased that all parties can now move on. Now more than ever, it is important that all communities come together for peace and justice.

As I said above, given it’s a settlement it’s impossible to know whether there was more to the case, and/or whether (as is often the case in the Employment Tribunal), the legal arguments were more about process than content.

But on the face of things it’s simultaneously hard to understand the decision to dismiss in the first place, and easy to see how NUS might have felt it had no choice given the wider political context of the time, and the emerging findings from its wider investigation into antisemitism.

But in many ways, things have moved on.

Political context

NUS has, for its own part, been busy implementing substantial and wide-ranging recommendations that arose from that wider investigation. It was almost certainly never going to do enough to please former universities minister Robert Haffon, who went repeatedly public with his criticism of NUS both as chair of the Education Committee and as minister – but he’s now gone, with no sign of his promised antisemitism charter.

Luke Hall is unlikely to be doling out major changes to maintenance or inventing a new fee system, and to the extent to which NUS will be preparing to engage with what looks like will be an incoming Labour government, that party has had parallel battles with antisemitism, disciplinary procedures and ongoing controversies over its position on Palestine. There is likely to be a degree of internal sympathy – and NUS can always “move on” through the renewal of its leadership.

What’s more interesting is the size, shape and position of the Overton window on the original offences.

The Union of Jewish students’ position on campus antisemitism, along with other prominent Jewish groups, has tended to argue that phrases like “from the river to the sea” and calls to “globalise the intifada” are inherently antisemitic, insofar as they are to be interpreted as calling for the elimination of the Jewish State of Israel.

And as well as lobbying for universities and SUs to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, have argued that pro-Palestinian activism on campus both creates a hostile environment for many Jewish students, and acts as a breeding ground for more extreme and calculated antisemitism.

But the David Miller case – an employment tribunal case concerning a Bristol academic that found anti-Zionist beliefs to be protected under the Equality Act – raised real (and as yet unanswered) questions about the practical adoption of IHRA into disciplinary procedures.

And it’s notable that the raft of pro-Palestinian talks, demos, occupations and latterly encampments on campus have tended to be accompanied by university (and SU) press releases nodding clearly in the direction of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.

The see-saw and the pendulum

I’ve written countless articles on this subject over the past few years, not least since the intensification of the conflict into a war since 7 October 2023, and I won’t repeat here how tricky this stuff is to handle for universities and their SUs. And from a student perspective, I certainly don’t think the purchase of a couple of off-the-shelf online modules on harassment and free speech respectively in preparation for student induction this September goes anywhere near to cutting it – and actually runs the risk of exacerbating problems.

Even with the Office for Students point blank refusing to go near the Middle East in its “guidance” on free speech, if nothing else the fact that the government’s Prevent guidance still says that universities should limit access to “permissive environments” while also saying that they should be “mindful” of duties to protect freedom of speech is a scenario in which allegations can be hurled around from multiple angles to little resolution.

What I think is starting to become clear is not so much the absence of political or regulatory leadership – the equivocation on antisemitism/anti-Zionism has been clear from day one of the Act’s introduction, and day one of the regulator’s appointment. It’s that we’re seeing the limits and costs of an approach that encourages everyone to believe that they have sometimes incompatible rights, and to explore challenges to those rights not through dialogue, discussion or democracy, but through complaints and legal procedures.

It was NUS itself – when I worked there, for full disclosure – that sought to remove from “political debate” questions over whether some conduct should be regarded as harassment, replacing it with technical evaluations of risk and codes of conduct precisely so that the harassed and oppressed did not have to win a vote to claim protection.

It was the right thing to do at the time, and on plenty of issues, it remains right now. But now, as both universities and SUs face an endless case load of student personal and political conflict codified as complaint rather than debate, it’s perhaps time to reflect on how far that pendulum has swung – and whether there are some issues, in some contexts, that cannot be resolved in that way, however hard that is and unjust it may feel for those caught up in them.

2 responses to “NUS reaches a settlement with Shaima Dallali

  1. In the current atmosphere the NUS took the most logical step to save money as tribunal judges are very likely to be swayed not only by the international situation but also by ‘local’ politics and saving their own skins. The NGO’s funding the professionally coordinated protests would soon latch onto that avenue of protest it the result went in favour of the NUS.

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