A bogus war

The NUS investigation is pointless.

A bogus war
Shaima Dallali before her dismissal as president of the National Union of Students (NUS) at the start of the month. Credit: NUS

On 1 November, Shaima Dallali was sacked as president of the National Union of Students (NUS). Amid the ongoing investigation into anti-semitism within NUS, she had already been suspended from her role in September. NUS gave no clear explanation for why Dallali was dismissed besides “significant breaches of NUS’s policies”. Independent investigator Rebecca Tuck KC is not due to report for at least another few weeks. This has led to a large amount of unfounded speculation, even downright disinformation – all of which has deepened rifts within an already divided student body.

The investigation into anti-semitism within NUS was triggered by two incidents. One was the planned appearance at the NUS national conference in March of rapper Lowkey, who has been criticised for comments made about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish heritage. Jewish students who were uncomfortable about his performance were told that they could go to a room designed for people with sensory issues, leading to accusations that the NUS was segregating Jewish attendees. NUS did apologise for any harm caused and sought to rebuild bridges with Jewish students, while defending the initial decision to invite Lowkey.

The second was the election, at the same conference, of Dallali as NUS president. Dallali, previously president of City University Students’ Union, won on a platform of democratising and decolonising higher education. Her election was swiftly followed by the discovery of tweets she had posted as a teenager during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in 2012, which stated “Khaybar Khaybar O Jews […] Muhammad’s army will return #Gaza”. Her apology proved insufficient for the government, which officially suspended funding and disengaged from NUS in May.

Within two weeks, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) had published an open letter calling for a full investigation into NUS’s “continued failing of Jewish students”. Although it transpired that many of the 1,500 signatories had been added without their knowledge, the following day NUS agreed to investigate.

Given the significant influence UJS has had over the investigation before it even began – NUS stated it had “worked closely with UJS” on both its terms of reference and the appointment of Rebecca Tuck KC as the independent investigator – it is no coincidence that much of what led to this investigation was the expression of solidarity with Palestine.

While UJS claims to represent all Jewish students regardless of their political beliefs, it has a strong pro-Israel bias. Its constitution includes the pledge to inspire “Jewish students to make an enduring commitment to […] Israel”. It performs this by promoting trips to the region, hosting talks with Israeli officials and, perhaps most importantly, campaigning for universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism, widely criticised for conflating criticism of Israel with anti-semitism and for its use in silencing Palestinians. While last year UJS promised to improve the representation of non-Zionist Jews at J-Socs, nothing seems to have come of this commitment.

In fact you could be forgiven for thinking that anti-semitism is not the target of the NUS investigation at all. The German-Palestinian critical race scholar Anna-Esther Younes has coined the term “the war on anti-semitism” – after the war on terror – to describe the way in which western governments and civic institutions seek to perform anti-anti-semitism to telegraph their commitment to anti-racism while simultaneously suppressing leftwing dissent, particularly over Palestine. This war developed in the Corbyn era, as the Labour right and news media weaponised claims of anti-semitism to weaken his leadership. As Labour has abandoned socialism, university campuses – where pro-Palestine activism is widespread – have become the new front of the war on anti-semitism.

The Conservatives have long targeted universities as a supposed breeding ground for leftwing politics. Just a few weeks ago, higher education minister Andrea Jenkyns used her party conference speech to decry universities feeding students “a diet of critical race theory, anti-British history and social Marxism”, the latter a rewording of an anti-semitic conspiracy theory.

The government’s attack on universities’ supposed imposition of left politics has gone hand-in-hand with a free speech crusade: the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill, which would legally require universities to protect free speech, is making its way through the House of Lords. It’s the perfect antidote to a problem that doesn’t exist – only six of the 10,000 student union events featuring outside speakers were cancelled in the 2019-20 academic year, while a 2020 study by the British Journal of Sociology found scant evidence of a leftist hegemony at UK universities.

More recently, the government has found the war on anti-semitism to be a supremely effective justification for crushing dissent at universities. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions bill, which would prevent universities and other public bodies from boycotting foreign states, has been included in the last three Queen’s speeches, but for reasons unclear has yet to be introduced in parliament. By contrasting “boycotts which sow division and hatred” with the idea of “community cohesion”, the government portrays any resistance to the pro-Israel consensus as anti-semitic, which justifies their deeply authoritarian policy.

The NUS investigation is just the latest manifestation of this. If the government genuinely took the issue of anti-semitism within the NUS seriously, it would not have pre-empted the findings of the investigation by suspending engagement with the NUS and having ministers criticise Dallali before the investigation even started.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) activists at the Student Rally Against Apartheid, in March 2022. Credit: PSC

Clearly, the primary victims of the bogus war on anti-semitism are Palestinian and pro-Palestine students. In April, Dallali spoke to the Guardian about the Islamophobic and racist abuse she has received since the investigation began: “I’ve had private messages of people calling me a raghead, people telling me to go and kill myself, calling me a Jew hater and an anti-semite. […] And so many threats as well – If I continue to do this then things will happen to me.” But it’s also bad for Jews.

The Australian Jewish race scholar Alana Lentin writes of the “false philo-semitism” of Western governments which, in positioning themselves as protectors of Jewish people, cast Jews as outsiders. This, Lentin says, “drives a further wedge between Jews and other racialized people with whom we should be in solidarity”.

The way NUS has treated Dallali has pitted the interests of Muslim students against those of Jewish students. The organisation has been silent about the Islamophobia that the investigation has provoked, leading the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) to declare that involvement in NUS is unsafe for Muslims. Ignoring and indeed enabling this abuse hardly suggests that NUS is making any serious attempt at anti-racism.

The endless cycle of targeting and punishing individuals who have said the wrong things creates the illusion of progress. In reality, it breeds resentment among those who have been censured and fear among everyone else. Anti-semitism is not a battlefield – it is a structural issue, and one that requires teshuvah, a restorative justice that gives those who have made mistakes a chance to learn from them. Other leftwing activists, like Labour politicians Ali Milani and Zarah Sultana, have shown that it is possible not just to apologise but to make amends for the harm their comments caused. Just like Milani and Sultana, Dallali should not be booted out of political life because of social media posts she published as a teenager.

Jews must not be fooled into thinking we could ever be the winners in this phoney war. The real war is on anti-colonial resistance, and we must stand against it.▼

Jack Klein is an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford and a member of Jewish Students for Justice.