When could student democracy amount to anti-semitism?

The “anti-semitism” episode at Essex university surrounding a vote on the creation of a Jewish society has attracted considerable media interest.

The students’ union’s sub structure for societies – called the “societies guild” – had held a standard approval ballot on a proposal to form a Jewish Society. The proposal was duly approved, but it emerged that in that ballot more than 200 students had voted “No” – prompting an understandable outcry.

Next, an allegation emerged that a university computer and electronics lecturer had used Facebook to express open opposition to the proposed JSoc. Writing a post in the university’s “Palestinian Solidarity Group”, they had apparently said that “the Zionists next want to create a society here at our university”, along with a bunch of other posts that, in the press report, look blatantly anti-semitic.

As the issue understandably caught light on social media, the university issued a statement, part of which located the vote on the society within the context of controversy – in fact one line said “we promote debate and deliberation of controversial issues”. That the rest of the statement had also discussed dignity, respect, and harassment policies – and investigating the alleged hate crime urgently – didn’t matter, as much of Twitter picked out that line and argued that the creation of a Jewish society shouldn’t be “controversial”.

It then later emerged that the union had worked out that a number of students not in the “societies guild” had managed to vote in the ballot, and so a fresh one was called. The union at this point was presumably hoping the controversy would end – but the situation still suggests that a sizable slice of the student body was keen to vote down a JSoc, and the implication was that they were egged on by anti-semitism from an a academic on campus.

And then finally it emerged that the opposition to the society’s ratification had originated from the union’s Amnesty international society, who had argued that part of the documentation that had been submitted was political, on the basis that “Judaism should not be conflated with Israel”. By the following morning, the academic had been suspended, the union’s board had decided to cancel the re-vote and ratify the society, and minister Chris Skidmore had got himself involved. All in about 24 hours, with several national newspapers picking up the story.

The union’s statement on the voting “irregularity” had said that it believed strongly in “the power of democracy” and that it gave members the right to decide “on everything we do”. But therein, perhaps, lay the problem.

Democratic developments

It’s self evident that students at Essex aren’t voting on when the shop manager pops for a break, or on the contract to provide greetings cards in the shop. They’re probably not voting on the risk assessment for the mountain and hillwalking club, they’re likely not having a big ballot on their next summer ball, and they’re not having a referendum on whether to ban a violent student from the bar.

Likewise, universities need to express values, induct students and staff into those values, and then enforce them with rules from time to time. But what happens when students or staff then debate those values – not in theory, but in live practice? Especially when they don’t mix quite as easily as you thought they did.

Students’ unions are proudly democratic – an organisational quality that’s hard to come by these days. Twenty years ago the majority of students’ unions were governed by representative councils of students, able to both debate political resolutions in principle, and carry out detailed scrutiny tasks on budgets, or regulations, or proposals to form new societies.

Many students’ unions found it enormously difficult to engage students in these structures, and so the majority abandoned them – shifting some powers into Trustee Boards, and others out to popular vote. After all, they are bound by charity law with its compliance requirements, and also required in law to operate democratically. So given the choice between board or vote, in this case it looks like the ability to approve a student society was hived off to a restricted referendum, and has probably caused no issues since.

The problem is that whilst boards and committees make sense for scrutiny decisions where compliance with rules are evaluated, popular votes don’t. Allowing a group of students to associate under the ambit of a students’ union is supposed to be conditional – does it have a proper constitution, are there a minimum number of students etc. In this case, not only would even ten students voting against the JSoc in the re-run election be a cause for concern, it’s not at all clear that a majority of students should ever be able to rule out a minority of students forming a society. And given the clear discrimination risk, if a students’ union could neither morally nor legally defend a vote against, it arguably shouldn’t hold a popular vote in the first place.

Scrutineering

Transferring scrutiny powers of a representative council out to a popular vote is fraught with problems. In fact, Brexit is a classic example of when this oil and water got mixed up. UK membership of the EU is both a political principle issue, and a fiendishly complicated scrutiny issue – and we also know that that kind of a popular vote is a place where prejudice can hide both anonymously, and with impunity. The difference is that you can make an argument for having a ballot on it – but probably not on the formation of a JSoc.

Even if you believe – as some do in this Essex example – that the particular formation of this particular JSoc had a political, “zionist” agenda – the question is whether you think that that gives the wider student body the right to deny their existence as a student group. For many, in doing so you’re not far from the terrifying accusation that you think the student body has the right to deny the existence of Jews at all.

It’s not at all right, though, to hurl abuse at the union. They’ve been caught out by a poor bit of constitutionality which has probably not caused them any trouble for years. Students’ unions are vital spaces for democratic education within higher education, and it would be a real pity if the reaction to this episode was to entrench the trend of stripping back democratic structures across SUs – many of which only really engage the wider student body in the election of student leaders these days, rather than wider debates about politics, ethics or morality.

Universities are required by law to ensure their unions operate in a “fair and democratic manner”, and so a focus on supporting SUs to innovate in and invest in democratic episodes where students get to both express and mediate their interests and opinions out in public would do society and its future some considerable good. But for that educational process to be valuable, it’s also crucial that we think through properly those decisions that ought be subject to a big debate – and those that, given they are about human rights, should probably never be debated at all.

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