David Hirsh on the Tuck Report on NUS Antisemitism

An Edited version of this piece will appear in the Jewish Chronicle

The National Union of Students (NUS) instructed independent barrister Rebecca Tuck KC to investigate long standing allegations of antisemitism within the organisation. During the investigation itself, the President of NUS, Shaima Dallali, who herself espoused antisemitic politics, was fired by NUS for gross misconduct. In response, her supporters claimed that this was a trumped up charge made in the interests of Zionism.

The first paragraph of Tuck’s report is already damning: for years Jewish students have not felt welcome in NUS; there ‘have been numerous instances of antisemitism’; it has fallen on Jewish students to complain;  their complaints have not been heard properly; there have been recommendations to make things better but they haven’t got better. Tuck reports that many independent accounts have been given to her ‘of students being identified as “a Jew” then being treated as a pariah at NUS events – subject to rooms “going quiet” when they walk in, conversations abruptly ceasing, being whispered about and stared at.’

‘I have found it to be the case that’ antisemitism occurs when ‘anti-Zionist’ campaigning takes place.

Tuck quotes the evidence of three students who had recently held elected positions in NUS who all reported that the complexity of their own identities and politics had been flattened by the institutional culture in NUS to the single aspect, Jewish. The report gives many detailed examples of this and other antisemitic treatment. Tuck is clear that there was  “an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”, which are the words used in the Equality Act 2010 to describe harassment.

Current NUS policy, mandated by conference, affirms the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Tuck says that there is nothing to gain by changing this situation. She says that she was not shown any example in NUS where IHRA had been used to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism; nor where it had created a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. 

Following the EHRC report on Labour antisemitism, the Tuck report on NUS antisemitism found it necessary to state explicitly that the Macpherson principle applies to Jews and to antisemitism: ‘complaints of antisemitism should be accepted as having been made in good faith unless/until shown to be otherwise’. This is crucial, because what I have called the Livingstone Formulation implies otherwise.  This is the relentless accusation made against Jews, that they  pretend to experience antisemitism in a dishonest attempt to de-legitimise criticism of Israel, as though it was antisemitic. This culture of assuming that Jews allege antisemitism in bad faith is the key mechanism for creating an antisemitic  hostile environment in these antiracist spaces.

Tuck concedes that altering a culture is ‘a notoriously difficult task’, but that is what she is trying to do with this report and with its recommendations. 

NUS has responded that the report ‘is a  shocking account of antisemitism within the student movement. It is a truly difficult read for all of us but we welcome the clarity it brings.’ 

It is not shocking in the sense of surprising, to anybody who has been paying attention; but it is shocking in the moral and political senses. The report describes and evidences the persistent, normalised culture of antisemitism amongst politically active students in Britain who consider themselves to be anti-racist. And more shocking still, but entirely predictable, will be the absolute, angry denials that will be heard in response to the report. NUS and Rebecca Tuck KC will be accused of being part of a Zionist, racist, pro-imperialist conspiracy to pretend that there is antisemitism in the hope of protecting Israel against criticism. 

Changing a culture is indeed difficult. NUS has promised a number of concrete responses to the report, including ongoing transparency, setting up an advisory board that includes the Union of Jewish Students, increased training on antisemitism, increased representation of Jews, education and more focused candidate preparation for NUS elections.

NUS has done what an institution can do. It has held an independent inquiry that has produced a good report and it has promised to take notice of it. The Labour Party, after the Corbyn experience, did much the same.

But both the Labour and student movements sit squarely in the centre of a liberal and left milieu in which Israel, and the Jews who are assumed to support it, are widely regarded as central to and symbolic of all that is evil in the world. The ‘Zionism’ of which Jews are accused is a conspiracy to nurture and to defend apartheid. It has almost nothing to do with the diversity of ways in which the identities of actual Jewish men and women relate to Israel. This is the underlying situation that underpins what has happened in the Labour Party and in NUS. This underlying situation is difficult to address.

David Hirsh
Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London
Academic Director of the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism

An Edited version of this piece will appear in the Jewish Chronicle

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