Antisemitism in the UK Contents

5Campus antisemitism

Oxford University Labour Club

77.In February 2016, the co-Chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC), Alex Chalmers, announced that he would be resigning from the position in protest at the Club’s decision to endorse Israel Apartheid Week—”a movement with a history of targetting and harassing Jewish students and inviting antisemitic speakers to campuses”. In a statement posted on Facebook, Mr Chalmers described “poisonous” attitudes among certain members of the club, citing examples such as members of the Executive “throwing around the term ‘Zio’”, and a former co-Chair saying that “most accusations of antisemitism are just the Zionists crying wolf”.115

78.Baroness Royall of Blaisdon was asked by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to investigate Mr Chalmers’ claims. She published her findings in May, concluding that there was not a culture of institutional antisemitism at OULC, but that “difficulties [ … ] must be addressed to ensure a safe space for all Labour students to debate and campaign”.116 The NEC chose to publish a shortened version of the report, but the Jewish Chronicle later obtained and published the full version on its website in August. In the full report, Baroness Royall said it was “clear” to her that there had been some incidents of antisemitic behaviour in the OULC, which should invoke the Labour Party’s disciplinary processes, but that many of the allegations made to her related to incidents that took place outside of the Club’s activities.117 Her recommendations included for all Labour clubs to undergo training on dealing with antisemitism, with leadership provided by the NEC, and for the Labour Party to establish a “properly resourced” national complaints procedure, with clear lines of reporting for complainants.

79.Oxford University Jewish Society said that the Labour Party’s decision not to publish the Royall report in full raised “serious doubts” about its sincerity in tackling antisemitism, noting that the full version of the report “finally confirms that antisemitic incidents did take place”. We agree that it was disappointing that the full report was not published; just as it was unfortunate that the Chakrabarti report did not mention the Royall report. The Union of Jewish Students (UJC) said that the full report “does not reveal much that wasn’t already thought to be the case”, raising questions as to why it was “suppressed” by the NEC.118 A Labour Party spokesman said that the NEC had accepted the report, and that all of the recommendations are currently being acted upon.119

National Union of Students

80.The election of Malia Bouattia as President of the National Union of Students (NUS) in April resulted in a lengthy ‘war of words’ between Jewish student groups and Ms Bouattia. The UJS challenged her previous comments that the University of Birmingham is “something of a Zionist outpost”. The statement appeared in a joint column for a student blog in 2011, in which she observed that Birmingham has the “largest [Jewish Society] in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists”.120 In an open letter signed by 50 Jewish society presidents, Ms Bouattia was asked why she saw “a large Jewish Society as a problem” and questioned about her relationship with Raza Nadim and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPACUK), which has been ‘no-platformed’ by the NUS since 2004, after publishing antisemitic material online.121 In her response, Ms Bouattia asserted that she has no relationship with Mr Nadim, and said that she was “alarmed” that the signatories to the letter had “drawn a link between criticism of Zionist ideologies and antisemitism”.122

81.Attention has also been drawn to comments made by Ms Bouattia in a recorded speech at a conference on “Gaza and the Palestinian Revolution” in 2014, in which she said: “With mainstream Zionist-led media outlets—because once again we’re dealing with the population of the global south—resistance is presented as an act of terrorism”. She also criticised peace talks between Israel and Palestine for strengthening “the colonial project”, arguing that non-violent protest and sanctions could be “misunderstood as the alternative to resistance by the Palestinian people”.123

82.Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told us that he regarded Ms Bouattia’s description of Birmingham University (as a “Zionist outpost”) and her attack on “Zionist-led media outlets” as antisemitic.124 At the national conference at which Ms Bouattia was elected President, the NUS was also criticised for hearing arguments against commemorating the Holocaust. Supporting the motion in favour of the NUS coordinating events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, delegates from Birmingham University described hate crimes against Jewish people on campus, including a poster entitled “Hitler was right”. Delegates arguing against the motion were applauded by audience members.125 Since the conference, a number of student unions have voted to disaffiliate from the NUS, including at the universities of Hull, Lincoln, Newcastle and Loughborough. Votes have also been held at the universities of Exeter, Warwick, Surrey, Essex, Oxford and Cambridge, but all six opted to remain affiliated.126

83.Ms Bouattia became the subject of further negative press attention when it was reported that, due to an amendment passed by the NUS’s National Executive Council (NEC) and Ms Bouattia, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) will no longer be consulted on the selection of the Jewish representative on the NUS’s Anti-Racism, Anti-Fascist (ARAF) Taskforce. The vociferous response of the UJS, which said that Ms Bouattia had shown “once again” that she has “absolutely no interest in defending Jewish students’ interests”, demonstrates the extent to which the relationship between the UJS and the NUS has deteriorated.127

84.Writing for the Jewish News, the NUS Vice President for Society and Citizenship, Rob Young, conceded that the NEC of the NUS “want to ensure that we are not working with the UJS as closely as we have in the past”, and argued that when Jewish students say something is antisemitic, the NUS must listen, “not question it”.128 Mr Young has commissioned research into the experience of Jewish students within the NUS and student unions, and said: “By making our spaces unwelcoming for Jewish students, we are not only failing to focus on these challenges, we are failing as a movement that represents all students.”

85.In written evidence to this inquiry, Ms Bouattia argued that the media coverage of the ARAF amendments was “extremely inaccurate”.129 Ms Bouattia’s submission also listed a number of NUS initiatives aimed at tackling racism, including Mr Young’s research on Jewish students. Referring to criticisms of her previous comments, she stated that she did not and does not see a large Jewish society on campus as a problem, and reiterated her previous defence of anti-Zionism (without defining what she believes to be covered by the term “Zionist politics”).130

86.In September, three NUS Vice-Presidents and numerous other student leaders, including 28 student union presidents, signed an open letter declaring that they “stand with Jewish students in their right to feel represented, safe and welcome” in the NUS.131 The letter states that the NUS’s leadership has “rightly come under increased scrutiny for its attitude towards Jewish students”, linking to a Guardian interview with Ms Bouattia in which she said she said that her previous comments had been “misinterpreted” and that accusations of antisemitism had raised the profile of the NUS and enabled the organisation to “put out our vision of the future”.132 In October, it was reported that Ms Bouattia had written to the UJS to suggest a meeting, which had not yet been arranged.133

87.The current President of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouattia, does not appear to take sufficiently seriously the issue of antisemitism on campus, and has responded to Jewish students’ concerns about her previous language with defensiveness and an apparent unwillingness to listen to their concerns. There is of course no reason why an individual who has campaigned for the rights of Palestinian people—a cause widely supported on university campuses—should not serve as President of the NUS. But Ms Bouattia’s choice of language (and ongoing defence of that language) suggests a worrying disregard for her duty to represent all sections of the student population and promote balanced and respectful debate. Referring to Birmingham University as a “Zionist outpost” (and similar comments) smacks of outright racism, which is unacceptable, and even more so from a public figure such as the President of the NUS.

88.The unique nature of antisemitism requires a unique response, which may not be effectively addressed by the steps that the NUS is currently taking. For the sake of their own credibility and to ensure Jewish students across the UK are treated appropriately, the NUS and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) should work to mend their broken relationship. The Jewish member of the Anti-Racism, Anti-Fascist (ARAF) Taskforce should be elected by the UJS, and should not require the approval of the President of the NUS. If, after a one year ‘grace period’, the UJS does not believe that the ARAF Taskforce is up to the challenge of tackling antisemitism on campus, an Antisemitism Taskforce should be established at the Executive level of the NUS, aimed at ensuring that British universities are a safe space for students of all faiths or none.

Tackling antisemitism on campus

89.The Macpherson report brought public attention to the notion that racism can become institutionalised without conscious bias on the part of the majority of individuals in that institution. The failings inherent in the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry were, for the most part, due to an institutional culture that treated the lives of black victims, witnesses and their families in a different manner from those of white people affected by serious crime. The report gives numerous examples of the ways in which “unwitting racism” can emerge. 134

90.Writing for Haaretz after her reinstatement to the Labour party, Naz Shah articulated how her understanding of antisemitism had improved since her Facebook posts were exposed:

My understanding of antisemitism was lacking. I didn’t get it. I don’t believe in hierarchies of oppression, but I’d never before understood that antisemitism is different—and perhaps more dangerous—than other forms of discrimination, because instead of painting the victim as inferior, antisemitism paints the victim as, in a way, superior and controlling.135

91.Writing for The Guardian, the former President of Oxford University’s Jewish Society, Aaron Simons, describes the student left as “institutionally antisemitic”.136 He argues that Israeli politics is interpreted through a “settler-colonial” paradigm; the history of Jewish oppression “through racial construction” is dismissed; and Jewish people are associated with “power, privilege and oppression”. This results in the promotion of some of the oldest antisemitic tropes: “Jews controlling politicians, the media and financial institutions.”137

92.The Chief Rabbi told us that “the overall context [in the UK] is thankfully good for Jews”, but expressed specific concerns about the situation faced by Jewish students:

There are Jewish students leaving home for the very first time who are very excited to be part of the open, free world and feel so liberated when coming on to campus. They express certain views and are immediately being identified, stereotypically, as people with a certain mindset and with a certain outlook and being demonised and linked to who knows what. Some ugly things are happening and that causes us a lot concern.138

93.We welcome the fact that Holocaust teaching in schools is compulsory. However, public understanding both of centuries of European anti-Jewish hatred, which culminated in the Holocaust, and of post-Second World War Jewish history, is still lacking. Many students encounter campaigning and debates about Israel and Palestine for the first time at university. The tensions surrounding Israel Apartheid Week and pro-Israel activities on campus illustrate how polarised this debate tends to be, with some students drawing on a simplistic formulation of the conflict. There is evidence that this has resulted in unwitting antisemitism emerging in some student populations, and within left-leaning student political organisations in particular.

94.Free speech must be maintained, and it is perfectly legitimate for students to campaign against the actions of the Israeli Government. But resources should be provided to ensure that students are well-informed about both sides of the argument, both Israeli and Palestinian, and to support them in developing a sensitive, nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern politics in general. Universities UK should work with appropriate student groups to produce a resource for students, lecturers and student societies on how to deal sensitively with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and how to ensure that pro-Palestinian campaigns avoid drawing on antisemitic rhetoric. This should be distributed widely via student unions, university staff and social media.

116 The Labour Party, Baroness Royall Inquiry, 16 May 2016

120 The London School of Emancipation, University of Birmingham & Israeli Apartheid Week: Mock Israeli Checkpoint (by Daniel Lindley and Malia Bouattia, University of Birmingham Friends of Palestine), 28 March 2011

121 Presidents of Jewish Societies, Questions that need to be answered, April 2016

122 Malia Bouattia, Response to open letter, April 2016

123 “Watch Malia Bouattia speak about ‘Zionist led media outlets’ and the armed struggle”—Youtube video, accessed 10 August 2016

124 Oral evidence taken on 14 June 2016, Q13

128 Jewish News (Rob Young), While Jewish students feel unwelcome, NUS is failing, 4 August 2016

129 NUS written evidence (SEM0012)

130 NUS written evidence (SEM0012)

131 Open Letter to Jewish Students from NUS and Students’ Unions, 28 September 2016

133 Jewish News, Malia Bouattia to meet Jewish students, 10 October 2016

134 The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, February 1999, page 44

138 Oral evidence taken on 14 July 2016, Q 401

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14 October 2016