At the end of 2022 Rebecca Tuck KC, a senior lawyer, published the results of her investigations into anti-Semitism in the National Union of Students (NUS). It is a depressing read.
She looked into the experiences of Jewish students at NUS conferences and when serving as NUS officers. Tuck also examined the interactions between the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and the NUS.
Jewish students interviewed for the report said that the NUS’s obsession with the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians led to them being treated as pariahs. Such students faced hostility even when they wanted to be active in other political campaigns. Complaints about this enmity were met with indifference. Sometimes they were dismissed as being made in bad faith and as a means of silencing political views with which they disagreed.
There were other ways in which anti-Semitism manifested itself. Sometimes it was through the use of old anti-Semitic tropes such as the blood libel. Then there was a speech made to a meeting about to vote on a motion to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. It rejected the centrality of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. Judaism was also omitted from a list of faiths appearing on NUS forms on four occasions. The report dismisses attempts to explain this omission as an honest error.
When the report was released the NUS accepted its findings in full. A formal apology which suggests at the board level the NUS might finally have got the message (the report mentions that a letter of concern sent by former NUS presidents when the incidents discussed in the report were at their height was ignored). to Jewish students was made at the start of this year’s NUS conference in March
Of course students’ experiences are equally determined by what happens on campus so the responses of individual students unions are of interest. Shortly after the report’s publication the Warwick student union disaffiliated from the NUS. Others issued what looked like holding statements. They urged the NUS to take action against anti-Semitism among students and to say it is considering its next steps while studying the report. King’s College London Students’ Union’s statement was fairly typical in that respect.
Some academics were critical of the report. The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (Brismes) complained that the report omitted the experiences of Palestinians who had had up to 20 events restricted in some way. The society said the report was inadequate in its discussion of free speech. It also claimed that Tuck was not expert enough on mainstream scholarly opinion on Middle Eastern politics and definitions of anti-Semitism x
Brismes’s criticism are without merit. Tuck did take submissions from such bodies as the British Palestinian Committee. If the incidents of pro-Palestinian activities suffering were relevant to the matters under discussion in the report, details should have been provided.
Tuck was also well aware of the free speech implications. These include the risk that debate on Israel might be stifled by the introduction of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The report does say that sometimes it might be better to put welfare before politics. However, that is not an endorsement of censorship. It is merely a common sense point that people should be mindful of the environment in which they operate. They should also be aware of the possible consequences of their actions on others.
Finally, the notion that only someone who shares Brismes’s outlook is competent to lead the sort of inquiry that Tuck led is bizarre. Just as strange is its complaint that Tuck prizes balance over historical accuracy. It seems that Brismes’s criticisms amount to nothing more than she did not back its political agenda.
Three particularly notable points emerged from the report. It was unequivocal that the treatment of Jewish students amounted to harassment. That was despite the fact that no past or present NUS board officers is facing sanction. There is a not too subtle reference to the fact that when dealing with legal disputes civil courts can request records going back six years. The NUS currently only retains records on officers or complaints/incidents for 18 months which would leave it vulnerable should a case arise.
Second, it is interesting that many of the incidents dealt with in the report happened after the NUS adopted the IHRA definition. The report is sceptical that the experiences of Jewish students will be improved by arguments over different definitions of anti-Semitism.
Finally, the report points out that the NUS has traditionally incorporated the conclusions of Lord Macpherson’s 1999 report on racism and policing. These include the principle that incidents should be recorded and investigated as potentially racist if the complainant sees them in that way. This goes well beyond the fact that the NUS was therefore inconsistent with its own principles when dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism. One can easily see how problematic the Macpherson principle could get when trying to determine where anti-Zionism becomes racism/anti-Semitism. This feeds into the broader philosophical debate over the need for objective standards when reaching conclusions on what counts as racism.
It is to be hoped that the improved atmosphere at the 2023 NUS conference marks a new beginning. Hopefully relations between the UJS and the NUS will be put on to a more co-operative footing. A change in NUS culture whereby political campaigns are more informed and driven by workshops rather than by forceful and loud personalities should help.
However, it is clearly going to take a while for this improvement to filter down to campus level. Astonishingly, another investigation led by a senior lawyer has just started at Goldsmiths, University of London. Mohinderpal Sethi KC has been asked to assess whether Goldsmiths breached its duties under the Equalities Act. The charge is that it failed to follow its own anti-racism policies and failed to support Jewish students facing anti-Semitism.
This came about after David Hirsh, a sociologist and campaigner against anti-Semitism, was falsely accused. Hirsh had expressed concerns about certain aspects of the campaign to ‘decolonise education’ and this is no doubt what lies behind the nonsensical accusation of white supremacism. This is clearly another instance of woke ideology driving anti-Semitism; the inquiry is due to report next year. of being a far-right white supremacist. Jewish students were also banned from attending a students’ meeting called to discuss “defending Palestine”. Only students who were African, Arab, Asian, Caribbean and other black communities were allowed to attend.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.