It's not a great time to be Jewish at university, says Luciana Berger. Especially if you have a senior position in the National Union of Students
By Luciana Berger, The Guardian
April 14, 2005
Last week I resigned from my position as a National Executive Committee member, because of a continued apathy within the National Union of Students to Jewish student suffering. In the words of a report distributed by NUS: "Anti-semitism is a very light sleeper indeed."
When I started my undergraduate course at Birmingham University, as a Jewish student it was a natural step to join the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). When I considered putting myself forward for election within the NUS, I remembered warnings from Jewish students who had done the same, of their struggles to confront a movement riddled with leftwing anti-semitism; of campaigns seeking to ban Jewish student societies in the 70s and 80s, instigated by the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and the Socialist Workers Party. Former Jewish NUS leaders told me about the reticence of the movement to deal with the growing problem of extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir within local student unions, and their dismay that warnings that terror groups were using campuses as a recruiting ground were ignored.
However, I felt privileged to be able to dismiss these as tales of a long-forgotten era. I was proud to be involved in an NUS that had acknowledged a history of anti-semitism and rectified it under the leadership of a succession of NUS presidents such as Stephen Twigg, Jim Murphy and Mandy Telford.
Sadly, my experience over the past 12 months has not only mirrored the history of those outlined above - in some ways it has surpassed it. The warning signs were there from my first NUS conference, when I was spat at for being Jewish. I, perhaps too readily, dismissed this as an isolated incident.
Almost half a year ago, serious complaints were lodged about anti-semitic comments made by an NUS member in a public meeting. These complaints were ignored, with no official response or action. A few months ago, when it was (incorrectly) rumoured that I, a Jewish student, was standing for the NUS presidency, anti-semitic whispers rocked the NUS. And NEC members failed to condemn a comment made recently at the Soas Student Union in London that burning down a synagogue is a rational act.
To my dismay, for all the talk about the values of equality, diversity and respect at last week's NUS conference, in practice nothing could be further from the truth, in relation to anti-semitism. A leaflet was readily available on the GUPS stalls at the conference for two days. The text was the typical anti-semitic work; the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Once again, complaints were met with unacceptable delays and silence.
Many people claim that being anti-Israel/Zionist isn't being anti-semitic. But why does hatred of Israel lead them to turn a blind eye to the Protocols on a GUPS pamphlet? Furthermore, while the UJS has always preached a two-state solution and peace, time and time again we see others reject it. This is evident in the attack on a UJS peace stall at the European Social Forum. University authorities are also dismissive of these issues - look at the Israeli boycot motions put to this month's Association of University Teachers conference.
There are those who do speak up, both independent student unionists and factions from disparate parts of the political spectrum, notably members of the National Organisation of Labour Students and the Alliance for Workers Liberty.
Of the 75 Jewish students present at the NUS conference, there were a number who felt there was no longer any point in Jewish students remaining involved in the NUS. I disagreed and eventually we decided that the worst possible outcome would be a victory for those who would prefer a Jew-free NUS. Together with two other Jewish national office holders, I felt that the most effective protest we could make was to resign our positions. Our intention was to make it clear that anti-semitism is no different from any other form of racism.
Since the NUS conference, I have been overwhelmed with support from delegates. But the lacklustre response of the NUS leadership has not been so encouraging. I believe that NEC members who are found to have promoted or fostered anti-semitism should be expelled from office, and groups that distribute anti-semitic propaganda should be barred from NUS events.
As the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, says, "an assault upon Jews is an assault upon difference, and a world that has no room for difference has no room for humanity itself". The NUS, with its history of "liberation campaigns", was at the forefront of political thinking on accommodating "difference" into the political process. Its new leaders will need to take some bold steps to ensure that the NUS remains true to its own heritage.
• Luciana Berger is a former NUS National Executive Committee member and co-convener of the NUS Anti-Racism/ Anti-Fascism Campaign.