A “very damning indictment of the presence of anti-Jewish racism at the heart of student politics”

NUS has published a long-awaited independent investigation into antisemitism in the union, commissioned following a high-profile speaker controversy at its annual conference last year.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It finds that Jewish students have been “subjected to harassment”, yet also finds that some complaints of antisemitism were viewed internally as “being made in bad faith to try and avert pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel policy advocacy”.

As well as recommending improvements to complaints procedures, the report calls for the creation of an “advisory panel” to monitor the implementation of the eleven recommendations, a review of election processes, and the recreation of a dedicated committee to discuss anti-racism and anti-fascism. An action plan and FAQ have also been published.

It is a detailed and in places quite upsetting report – many of whose sections which will be of particular use to those universities (and SUs) that may have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, but may not (yet) have used it in practice.

There are, though, some troubling aspects to the report which deserve some consideration.

It is odd that no student leader could be found to put a name to any of the quotes on the press release. There is little to doubt the sincerity of current NUS CEO Kat Stark’s statements on the investigation – but the idea that the National Union of Students can’t find one to front out an action plan that will require political as well as process leadership feels strange. It’s not as if students can vote Stark out if she fails to deliver.

It’s worth remembering that this process of investigation into antisemitism in NUS was separate to but obviously linked to the investigation into now former NUS President Shaima Dallali. The details, and crucially judgements surrounding that dismissal remain confidential – but this report offers some clues as to what could have been considered in the Dallali dismissal.

For example, you will recall that at least some of the allegations surrounding Dallali concerned historical social media posts that had not been deleted. In a section on NUS’ behaviour code, Rebecca Tuck KC says that the policy “has been interpreted as covering encompassing material on social media accounts when those accounts have been linked to NUS campaigns, even if they were first posted earlier.”

It isn’t clear if Tuck is reporting or describing her own view, but either way the idea that the entirety of someone’s historical digital footprint might be used to judge a contemporary misconduct case feels highly problematic.

Similarly, Tuck recommends that a “Due Diligence” process is undertaken on candidates standing for election – so that consideration is given to a candidates’ “commitment to antiracism” over a longer time than just the election period.

This could be shorthand for “someone needs to check they haven’t tweeted anything offensive”, or it could be requiring something more proactive – but either way it’s the sort of thing that you could see the Free Speech Union arguing against on the basis that it’s what you do now, or in a role, that matters – especially when talking about young people.

Most unsatisfactory of all, though, is the lack of reflection on any links between conduct that takes place in the context of NUS and the context of member students’ unions and their universities and colleges.

Perhaps this wasn’t in Tuck’s remit – but given that most participants in NUS are also simultaneously members of their SU and students of a provider, you’d have thought it would be wise to work out how to avoid a “well we banned them from Blackpool but they’re still on their campus” scenario from happening.

Students’ unions and universities will certainly be considering whether it is wise or possible to adopt the same approaches as those described above to local student representatives. And why stop there? Should the digital footprint of course reps be considered? Maybe all students should be examined ahead of enrolment.

Some of the identified allegations clearly do amount to racial harassment. But to not consistently reflect on the extent to which the allegations could amount to lawful speech that would be protected under the terms of the Free Speech Bill that is making its way through Parliament right now just seems daft.

As I’ve said before on here, if a student (or a speaker) says something that is “legal but harmful” either universities and their SUs are a) not allowed to ban it/them, b) allowed to but don’t have to, or c) must. We really do need to make up minds on this one.

2 responses to “A “very damning indictment of the presence of anti-Jewish racism at the heart of student politics”

  1. This is an interesting take on what is a really really damning report that anyone who’s been involved in NUS or some SUs in recent years will recognise.

    Speaking of which – it does feel like some kind of note might reference the connection between the author and NUS on this one? Just for transparency’s sake?

  2. Was looking forward to seeing Wonkhe’s coverage of this critical issues. Glad I found it right down the bottom of the weekly email. Guess Jews don’t matter?

Leave a Reply