Academic Freedom on Campus: The Activities of the Union of Jewish Students

From the archive (legacy material)

Ben Young | Speech at a meeting of Jews for Justice for Palestinians in London | 28 June 2003

Speech delivered by Ben Young, Jewish Student (Queen Mary and Westfield College) at a meeting of Jews for Justice for Palestinians in London, 28 June 2003
With thanks to Ben Soffa.
It is reasonable to believe that University campuses are open fora which are conducive to free discussion. However, in the case of Israel/Palestine, this is not so. The NUS (National Union of Students in Britain) have never campaigned on this issue or discussed it in depth at the Annual Conference. At individual universities there is often a bar on full-ranging and free exploration of this issue. The prime reason for this is the policies and activities of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
Therefore, in my speech about academic freedom on campus, I shall be looking at how the Union of Jewish Students tries to stifle any discussion about Zionism or Israel/Palestine and how the progressive organizations and we as progressives have to counteract that.
In looking at the Union of Jewish Students strategy and tactics, I am going to look at the national or NUS Conference situation and the local or individual university one. UJS works on both tracks so that a stifling of discussion on one can be transferred to help achieve success on stifling discussion on the other. It is also important to note the differing tactics of the UJS in dealing with the Jewish and non-Jewish student bodies.
The National Level
The Union of Jewish Students is a formidable organization, acting more like a centralised political party than a student society. They may state that they are not a political organization, but they act at NUS Conference as if they are one. They say that they are proud to be Zionists while disavowing the political nature of Zionism. The financial muscle of the UJS is awesome compared to any other student society or indeed the National Union of Students itself. While many student societies are run on an amateur ‘love of the sport’ ideal, UJS has the capacity to employ 10 full-time officers. Nationally they operate as a political faction, spending £10,000 on campaigning on a two-day conference. That is half of what the whole National Union of Students spent on non-fees campaigns in a full year, and we might also compare it with the £90,000 the NUS spends on all campaigns in a year.
Pretty much everything that the National Union of Students does is a result of battles and horse-trading between various political factions, a process that can seem incomprehensible to the uninformed outsider. Labour students and the Union of Jewish Students indulge in a bout of horse-trading so that both parties benefit to a degree far in excess of their actual support base. UJS lends it block vote to Labour students to ensure that the National Union of Students President will always be the Labour candidate. Hence every NUS President so far has been from that group, although this year Mandy Telford only won by 3 votes against the Campaign for Free Education (CFE) candidate. In return, the Union of Jewish Students get support from Labour for elections to the Conference Steering Committee and the UJS member of the block of 12 part-time NUS Executive members is given responsibility for the NUS anti-racism and fascism campaigns. The former is a very important position in that it dictates what is and isn’t discussed at Conference, so that the Union of Jewish Students have control of the basic means of getting (or blocking in this case) Palestine onto/from the agenda.
By using delaying tactics at Conference they can ensure that Palestine doesn’t get discussed if it comes to the top of the emergency debate ballot as it did in 2002 (during Operation “Defensive Shield”). This year the Union of Jewish Students managed to ‘bulldoze’ the agenda by inviting Shimon Peres to speak at a fringe meeting, a move that attracted media attention away from any other discussions. This came at some cost to the Conference, as due to the excessive security measures demanded and the demonstrations it occasioned, a full half-day of the main Conference had to be cancelled (1/6th in total!). Had this opportunity for debate on Palestine at the national level materialised, it could have been used by individual student unions as an example to follow. This illustrates how the success of the Union of Jewish Students at the national level helps them to consolidate their campaign at the local level.
With UJS having an executive role in the anti-racism campaign run by the National Union of Students, they can advance their own causes, which may not be so important in the wider context (e.g. the case of David Irving) compared to the discrimination faced by asylum seekers, Muslim, Black and Asian students.
The Local Level
Locally, Jewish Societies (or J-Socs) do differ in activities and composition, yet their autonomy is curtailed by the central UJS organizations. When Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJFP) organized a tour of Israel refuseniks, the Leicester Jewish Society invited them to speak. They were unable to host them however because the central Union of Jewish Students organization forbade them to invite the refuseniks. In terms of their approach to non-Jewish students this can be described as FUD (Fear, uncertainty and doubt). When dealing with any motion or event that they deem hostile, J-Socs introduce a spurious religious aspect to any anti-Occupation motion and declare that if this motion is passed it will be the cause of a major upsurge in anti-semitism and the Jewish student body will be in fear of their safety. This makes non-Jews reluctant to vote for these motions for fear of being labeled anti-semitic.
Allied to this is the practice of trying to pass motions labelling anti-Zionism as a form of racism. Such motions were passed at Surrey and Liverpool universities. These motions state that Zionism is merely the expression of self-determination among the Jews and is separate from the Israeli state, its government, political parties and actions! The local Jewish Societies are also very adept at winning Sabbatical and part-time positions in student unions, giving them a vantage point on union and society activities. Here at Queen Mary and Westfield College, students do have an opportunity to write about Palestine in the student magazine. This is accompanied by a ‘rebuttal’ by a J-Soc member, which muddies the waters for the majority of students as in these articles the situation is always portrayed as a battle between two equal sides. In this way, unions feel unable to take a strong position on this issue.
If there are any particularly effective campaigns about the iniquities of the Israeli government, the occupation. etc. then the J-Soc can always count on some powerful allies in the Jewish press (the Jewish Chronicle, London Jewish News, Jewish Telegraph, etc) and Jewish Communal organizations in claiming that their community is being attacked by malign racist forces. A successful Israel-Iraq motion at QMUL was accompanied by reports in the London Jewish News of vicious anti-semitism. Needless to say such claims were pretty unfounded. An anti-checkpoint street theatre demonstration which had been carefully prepared and whose organizers had negotiated strict guidelines with the university administration was met by a provocative counter-demonstration staged by some members of the J-Soc. What was particularly abhorrent about this was not just the offensive slogans they wore on their T-Shirts (If I were a suicide bomber, you’d be dead by now) or the fact that they decided to stage this counter-demonstration at the last moment, but that they demonstrated with a deliberate aim to provoke anger and then label it as anti-semitism. This precipitated more hysterical press reports, which were only partially redressed, and a visit to the university by the Board of Jewish Deputies. One can only assume that the workload among the Anglo-Jewish community cannot be very high if they can afford to waste time investigating this non-event, which was only anti-semitic in the minds of the J-Soc. Scared by the fuss the J-Soc stirred up, the university refused to allow us (The Palestine society) to put on a photo exhibition.
UJS Approach to Jewish Dissidents
The Union of Jewish Society approach to any Jewish dissidents is interesting in that it combines a mixture of pleading, threats and low-level violence. Just take as one example the hand-over letter of the outgoing UJS president Alan Senitt. It pleads for all Jews of all political and religious backgrounds to unite under UJS as “UJS continues to be the only organisation in this community that provides an environment that is open and accessible to all Jewish students.” He also states that while one may be critical of an action of the Israeli government, this does not cast any aspersions on its motives, ideology or claims to be democratic. Yet this is an organization so rigid and unyielding in its defence of Israel that UK Friends of Peace Now (which is hardly the most radical organization) does not believe it worthwhile to include UJS in its dialogue groups because of its inflexible dogmatic attitude.
When Jewish non- or anti-Zionists have stood for office, J-Soc members have dogged them with a ritual of low-level violence and intimidation – with the candidates in question having their posters torn down, drinks poured over them and being slurred as Nazis. When a youth refusenik was due to speak at Liverpool University, J-Soc members turned up trying to disrupt the meeting by shouting and ringing each others mobiles as well as threatening the premises manager to have the place shut down. Such tactics continue as part of a strategy to attack anyone they see as a threat and then sling the mud at anyone who campaigns or work with these opponents so they are discredited by association.
The Way Forward
So these are the means by which the Union of Jewish Students seeks to diminish freedom of speech on campus on issues involving Israel/Palestine. How then should we combat it?
I think among the wider community, there has to be more campaigning by Palestine and sympathetic groups, not least in order to give this campaign a universal and international significance. There are important universal issues, parallels and similarities to be drawn between the situation in Israel/Palestine, East Timor, Burma and South Africa that go way beyond any narrow ethnic or religious dimension. I also do sense a shift in the general public’s perception of the situation. When the issue was discussed a few weeks ago on BBC1 Question Time (time of attempted Rantissi killing), many members of the audience severely doubted Sharon’s sincerity in making peace, and this shift is being reflected in the general media.
Among the Jewish community, there has to be an alternative focal point for Jewish students. That is why we at JFJFP (Jews for Justice for Palestinians) are in the process of setting up a student branch of our organization, and we intend this to be up and running by the start of the new academic year in September 2003. This organization cannot simply have as its basis the negative appeal of being anti-UJS. It will have to set out its own agenda and dare the Union of Jewish Students to open its horizons. It needs to show that Zionism is not an integral part of Judaism; that it is an outdated and racist political ideology, which is alien to Judaism and has outlasted its time. It needs to tear down the wall that UJS has created between the Jewish student body and Muslim and Arab students. So I therefore urge everyone; if they know anyone who is currently studying at university and is sympathetic to our aims to please get them to contact us.
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