So long as anti-Semitism is dismissed, Cambridge cannot endorse the NUS
It’s not right that the voices of thousands of Jewish students across the country are playing second fiddle.
If you happened to be at the Union last Thursday, you might have caught me fresh off the train from NUS Conference in Brighton.
I was incensed by what I’d seen, but I wanted my appeal to be a rallying cry. Jewish students should want to stay and fight. After all, this is your NUS too, I said.
Malia Bouattia still hasn’t attempted to offer an ‘I’m-sorry-you-were-offended’ non-apology, let alone a sincere one to Jewish students. I’m frustrated that, on the student left, the right to define what is and isn’t “real” anti-Semitism has become the preserve of anyone other than, well, Jews.
The truth is, lots of people have been shouting loudly about anti-Semitism on the left, and I just haven’t given them the time of day. Somehow, I’d almost taken it for granted that those who didn’t much like the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (who call for the boycott of Israel) would use Malia’s advocacy of that cause as a stick to beat her with. I should have listened sooner. That’s not a comfortable thing to admit, but the events of the past few weeks have forced me to confront this set of lazy assumptions head on.
It hit home, when I sat in the front row at NUS National Conference. During the straightforward business of passing a motion to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, one delegate argued – to applause – that to do so would mean, and I quote: “privileging Jewish lives over others”.
It didn’t matter that the motion passed with a huge majority. It didn’t matter that Malia voted for it. It mattered that a culture existed where someone could be sure that to utter something so sickening would have been tolerated. It mattered that it was said, and what’s more, that it wasn’t called out. Had a similar thing been said about black lives, women’s lives, gay lives or disabled lives, it would have constituted a breach of the NUS’s safe-space policy. Not so for anti-Semitism.
I want to stand by the case for the NUS that I made at the Union, and in many ways I do. I want to believe in a national union that’s about more than discounts at Pizza Express and half price Spotify. One that stands up for students rather than standing by. But when, in February, the National Executive Council of the NUS voted to remove automatic inclusion of Jews in the union’s ‘Anti-Racism, Anti-Fascism’ campaign, the alarm bells began ringing. This week, they’ve become deafening.
Because it’s not about one President. It’s not even directly about the comments Malia has made, problematic as they are. This is about an institutional cancer that tells us, whenever Jewish students speak out, our default should be to assume ulterior motives. It’s about a culture of factional politics that means leaving your critical faculties at the door and worshipping deeply flawed candidates all in the name of being a good comrade.
What was so deeply worrying about the anti-Semitism allegations at the conference was that they never made it onto conference floor in the first place. Disqualified out of hand, these ‘outside’ concerns would just have to wait as half a dozen career student politicians stalked the conference centre in search of their ticket for the NUS gravy train.
Awkwardly, this time it was the voices of thousands of Jewish students across the country that played second fiddle.
But really, we can talk ourselves around in circles about the pros and cons of leaving the NUS, and there’s an important debate to be had in the coming weeks. But when the dust settles and the arguments have been weighed up, it really only comes down to a very simple question for those of us who aren’t Jewish, but want to be the best allies we can be.
In good faith, can we tell Jews that the NUS is an organisation they should want to be a part of? If there’s even a hint of doubt, there can only be one answer when we have the chance to vote on our affiliation in a couple of weeks.
With a heavy heart and for what it’s worth, I’m out.