The National Union of Students (NUS) has released its survey on The Experience of Jewish Students in 2016/17, showing that more than a quarter of Jewish students are living in fear of an antisemitic attack. Some 485 of the estimated 8,500 Jewish students in the UK responded to the survey carried out by an NUS internal research team in cooperation with the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) between last November and February.
We welcome the efforts of Robbie Young, the NUS Vice President for Society and Citizenship, who initiated this survey and applaud this step in the right direction. There can be a positive impact on Jewish student life if the concerns of Jewish students are actually listened to.
As we have reported, however, NUS has a track record of and has failingfailed miserably to tackle antisemitism. Current NUS President, Malia Bouattia, was recently condemned by the Home Affairs Select Committee for “outright racism” after she referred to the University of Birmingham as a “Zionist outpost.” An internal report for NUS found that she made antisemitic comments but outrageously she faced no action whatsoever as a consequence.
Bouattia called Birmingham University a “Zionist outpost in higher education” because it has “the largest Jsoc [Jewish student society] in the country.” She railed against “Zionist-led media outlets”, defended Palestinian terrorism as “resistance” and voted against condemning ISIS. When called on by Campaign Against Antisemitism and countless student leaders to retract her comments, she penned an article in The Guardian claiming that her accusers were simply sexists and racists. Bouattia refused to confirm that Israel has a right to even exist and told an audience at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) that the government’s anti-terrorism strategy is led by “Zionist and neo-con lobbies.” Last July Bouattia drew further condemnation when she used her casting vote to strip Jewish students of their ability to elect their own representative on the national anti-racism committee. She has yet to publicly apologise to Jewish students for the offence she has caused.
Given the tolerance for antisemitism by NUS, is it surprising that so many Jewish students feel detached and alienated from their union? The results of this survey are disturbing but therefore not unexpected:
- Only 49% of students said they would feel comfortable attending NUS events.
- Just 40% would feel comfortable engaging in the NUS policy making process.
- Alarmingly, a staggering 65% do not believe the NUS would “respond appropriately” to allegations of antisemitism. One student said that “There is a tendency for NUS representatives to make blanket statements about Jews, including presumptions about their motives. This is very belittling and indicates that issues of Jewish students are not seriously considered.”
Other worrying findings in the survey are:
- 26% of students said that they were either “fairly worried” or “very worried” about suffering a physical attack, property damage, verbal abuse or theft because they are Jewish.
- 28% have experienced personal abuse through social media or other communication.
- 65% had not experienced any crime whilst they have been students at their current place of study but 66 percent of those who had experienced crime believed these incidents were motivated by the perpetrator’s prejudice towards them based on their Jewish belief.
- 42% reported difficulties accessing kosher food on their campuses. One student mentioned the impact of BDS on kosher food. “BDS…It’s xenophobic and prevents kosher food being sold in SU outlets as most Kosher food is made in Israel.”
- 59% disagreed or strongly disagreed that their university avoids scheduling classes and exams during Sabbath and Jewish religious festivals. One student gave the example of “being told I would be marked down in a module if I left early for Shabbat because the university is a secular institute.”
- Allegations of Jewish students being the victim of antisemitic comments made by lecturers. For example, “The only reason he was thrown in jail is because he was taking money from Jews and they are resourceful” and a “A lecturer made a joke about a gas chamber during a lecture about atmospheric gases and climate change.”
The first recommendation in the report is “Reviewing the current definition of antisemitism it adopts to ensure it is fit for purpose.” While NUS has been using the International Definition of Antisemitism, we call on them to enforce it. If they feel that they are unable to work with this definition, it questions their practices rather than the definition. It is an established principle that you cannot address a problem until you have identified what it is and adopted criteria, in this case a definition of antisemitism. If NUS is serious about addressing its antisemitism problem, it must use the international definition.
Another recommendation is for “NUS Leadership, staff and volunteers, elected and appointed, to receive training and guidance on antisemitism, within training on equality/race equality.” It is vital that NUS receives the right training to recognise antisemitism. Antisemitism is often nuanced and camouflaged and expressed in coded language so it is important that NUS comprehends its complexities.
Some Jewish students, however, have questioned the survey following its release. A student at the SOAS in London told The Algemeiner, an American Jewish newspaper, that she did not participate in the study because “I don’t trust the NUS or its intentions to improve Jewish student experience on campuses.”
Campaign Against Antisemitism calls on the NUS leadership, particularly the new leadership following the elections later this month, to use this report and its findings as a catalyst for real change and to ensure that all Jewish students have a safe and positive experience at university.