Five questions we should all be asking about the NUS’ investigations into alleged antisemitism

Five questions we should all be asking about the NUS’ investigations into alleged antisemitism

The UK Government has, in the last five years, escalated its attack on those campaigning for Palestinian rights, most recently turning the focus onto universities.

In 2020, the then-education secretary Gavin Williamson put significant pressure on universities to adopt the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism, despite significant concerns from academics and legal experts that this would result in the increased conflation of legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. By January 2022, the secretary of state (now Nadhim Zahawi) was briefing that students who chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” should have the police called on them for antisemitism. UCU and the NUS jointly and unequivocally rejected this grotesque overreach, a clear example of the government falsely conflating advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism.

In April 2022, the NUS’ annual conference was held under the scrutiny of the media, as the UJS had publicly criticised the NUS for inviting the rapper Lowkey to speak. Nonetheless, student delegates elected their new full-time President: Shaima Dallali, who ran on a platform of combatting the marketisation of education and empowering student organisers, and who has been a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights. She was never able to fully take on the role. On November 1st, Jewish News broke the story that she had been sacked, before Dallali had herself been informed of the outcome. In the midst of widespread media misinformation, here are the real questions we should be asking about this investigation:

1.       Which investigation are we talking about?

In May, the NUS announced two investigations: one into allegations that had been made by the Union of Jewish Students against Dallali under the NUS’ Code of Conduct; and a wider investigation into allegations that had been made against the NUS and its wider culture by the UJS (Union of Jewish Students) and the government. This is despite significant factual discrepancies in the claims made against Dallali and the NUS, including that the UJS’ letter of complaint contained multiple signatures that were alleged to be falsified and that the government’s threat of defunding the NUS was empty, as the NUS does not receive government funding.

Key resources

“A number of signatures – including mine […] have been falsified on this letter. How can we trust any of the others?” – Rivkah Brown, via Twitter

“The announcement also craftily “confirms” that NUS will not receive any government funding – it wasn’t getting any anyway, but it does allow the press to write up the story as NUS having its “funding suspended”.” – Jim Dickinson, WonkHE
2.       How – and why – did these investigations come about?

The NUS faced intense pressure to undertake these investigations, with media attention focusing on the government’s empty threat of defunding, the UJS’ open letter, and a tweet for which Shaima had already apologised in full. Superficially couched in concern about the serious issue of antisemitism , government statements and media framing betrayed greater concern with the (so-called) “culture wars”: former education Minister Michelle Donelan used it to label university students as “intolerant woke bullies” and threatened a bill to punish universities and Students’ Unions that allow students to protest against injustice.

This speaks to a historical attempt to weaken the movement for Palestinian rights by conflating legitimate criticisms of Israel with antisemitism. In the last ten years, the government’s endorsement of the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism (which the NUS use in both of these investigations), has explicitly been used to shut down pro-Palestine events on campuses across Britain: in 2017, a panel event titled ‘Debunking misconceptions on Palestine and the importance of BDS’ was cancelled by the University of Central Lancashire, on the claim that the event “contravened” the government-endorsed IHRA definition of antisemitism. The allegations made against the NUS in 2022 included that “the president, Larissa Kennedy, shared platforms with people holding concerning views on the Jewish Community”, referring specifically to a panel event hosted by PSC, at which three of the five panellists were Palestinian, and the topic of discussion was global solidarity. No complaints were made at the time of the panel, and the implication that these Palestinians, merely by being Palestinian and talking about their rights, must have been expressing antisemitic views is deeply concerning.

This silencing of Palestinian voices comes in a context of the current government being responsible for some of the most repressive legislation seen in decades, all aimed at imposing limits on campaigners’ abilities to challenge the UK government and UK companies over illegal or unethical practices – this includes the Policing Bill, the ‘Spy Cops’ Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill, and the Overseas Operations Bill.

Key resources

“The media attacks on Dallali have been utterly despicable—racist and Islamophobic in nature, and obviously designed to make an example of her in an attempt to prevent others from speaking up against injustice.” – Stella Swain, The New Arab

“I came into this role with so much hope and enthusiasm to build on the amazing work of the student movement and to serve students across the UK. Instead, I’ve been subjected to the most horrifying attacks on my character, my faith and my identity.” – Shaima Dallali, via Twitter

“Yet while diehard Israel apologists like Michael Gove believe talk of Israel and apartheid is “hate speech”, Palestinians, Israelis, and international human rights experts have long asserted that the Israeli government is conducting policies that constitute the prohibited practice.” – Ben White
3.       How has the NUS handled these investigations?

In short, badly.

Though the NUS have been put under unacceptable pressure by the government and media, their handling of these investigations have caused many to doubt their historic commitment to liberation and antiracism. From the time of Dallali’s election, students raised concerns about the pressure being put on the NUS to overturn a democratic election, and the strain that having a very public trial would put on Dallali herself. Dallali faced unacceptable levels of media harassment, including death threats, as a result of the public nature of her investigation.

The NUS’ publication of the Terms of Reference, including spurious allegations around her support for Palestinian rights (her tweeting “from the river to the sea” was included in the Terms of Reference for her investigation), only added to this harassment, and have been widely criticised for guiding the investigation to a foregone conclusion (British Palestinian Council); for procedural inconsistencies (WonkHE); and for undermining anti-racist work (including the combatting of antisemitism) by centring the use of the highly disputed IHRA (Institute of Race Relations). They have also been criticised for giving the UJS – the complainant in this investigation and a far from disinterested party on the topic of criticism of the Israeli state (their website features prominently resources declaring it to be inherently antisemitic to describe Israel as a state practising the crime of apartheid and to promote BDS) – an inappropriately privileged role in both the appointment of the investigator and the terms of reference of the investigation.

Key resources

“It is unacceptable that the NUS UK Board is disregarding the concerns of Palestinian students and a large segment of the student population, when the Terms of Reference explicitly target Palestinian advocacy.” – British Palestinian Council, letter of complaint to the NUS

“If NUS has somehow found a way to terminate the membership (and thus elected office, and thus employment) of someone on the basis of things that Dallali did before she was even a candidate in an NUS election, that could end up having quite profound and far-reaching ramifications.” – Jim Dickinson, WonkHE

“Mindful of the wider responsibilities of this inquiry, we urge you to consider the wisdom of the NUS incorporation of the IHRA definition into policy making and what impact it has had on race relations and community cohesion on campus.” – Institute of Race Relations, submission to NUS investigation

“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”.” – Jack Klein, Vashti Media
4.       So why are Palestinians, and advocates for Palestinian rights, being brought into this?

Several allegations published in the Terms of Reference for Ms. Dallali’s investigation betray a conflation of legitimate advocacy for Palestinian human rights with antisemitism. These include Ms. Dallali’s participation in a protest at KCL against the presence on campus of a former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel and the tweet  “from the river to the sea” [Palestine will be free].  The NUS’ use of the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism as a basis for its investigation (despite it not having been voted through at their most recent democratic conference) exacerbated this conflation, as the IHRA definition has widely been criticized for eliding legitimate criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism.

Since its introduction in 2016, the IHRA definition has been used to prevent Palestinians from discussing their own oppression, including attempts to blanket-label the international Israeli Apartheid Week as antisemitic, and even to fuel anti-Palestinian racism. The mislabelling of criticisms of Israel as antisemitic has served to produce a widespread ‘chilling effect’, where Palestinians feel unable to participate in political discussions about their own experiences of racism and oppression due to fear of being denounced as antisemitic.

Key resources

“Applying this definition in the planned investigation will make the NUS an active participant in the silencing and alienation of all those who take a clear and moral stand against Israel’s apartheid policies, while failing to achieve the NUS’ purported aim of investigating antisemitism.” – British Palestinian Council, submission to NUS investigation

“The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism […] is worded in such a way as to be easily adopted or considered by western governments to intentionally equate legitimate criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, as a means to suppress the former.” – 40+ Jewish organisations

“It is well documented, including by the definition’s primary author, that the IHRA working definition has been weaponized to silence Palestinians and their supporters, including Jews who support Palestinian rights. By labelling criticism of Israel as antisemitic, the definition is used to exclude those who are critical of Israel from participating in public engagements and partnerships or holding valued positions.” – Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, ‘Anti Palestinian Racism: Naming, Framing and Manifestations’ (2022, p.25)
5.       What other concerns have been expressed about this process?

Dallali’s identity as a Muslim has often been elided with her identity as an advocate for Palestinian rights. The two are not the same, but Dallali has been targeted for both her advocacy of Palestinian rights, and her identity as a Muslim. Multiple Muslim organisations have pointed out the extent of the Islamophobic abuse that Dallali has been subjected to, and the inconsistencies in the way that concerns about her treatment were dealt with by the NUS compared to the way the NUS responded to concerns from Jewish students.

The misidentification of all Palestine solidarity as potentially antisemitic continues to do deep harm to the fight against antisemitism. As the Institute of Race Relations has pointed out, the use of the convoluted and contested IHRA “mak[es] more difficult the urgent task of building consensus around policies and practices that educate against antisemitism and other forms of racism”. Indeed, it is important to recognise that Jewish groups are themselves not agreed on the usefulness of the adoption of the IHRA: as Judith Butler, the Jewish American philosopher has said, the use of antisemitism charges as a tactic to suppress campaigning for Palestinian rights diminishes and denies the historical reality of antisemitism in our times, including the rise of the far right here and abroad. In relation to these NUS investigations, Jewish students have pointed out that “you could be forgiven for thinking that anti-semitism is not the target of the NUS investigation at all”, taking issue with UJS claims to represent all Jewish students, expressing the feeling of many left-wing Jewish students that non-Zionist Jews are not currently welcome in the UJS.

Key resources

“We are deeply concerned with NUS’ negligence in communicating with FOSIS regarding the explicit Islamophobic abuse Shaima experienced, as part of the NUS-sanctioned Independent Investigation.” – FOSIS statement

“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.” – Jack Klein, Vashti Media

“The deeply flawed process and framework surrounding this investigation have discredited it from the outset.” – Sara Husseini, British Palestinian Committee

The NUS has consistently been placed under unacceptable pressure by the government, the media and the UJS – with the ultimate aim being to silence those in the student movement who take a stand for the rights of Palestinians. The overall conduct of those responsible for pushing for and carrying out these investigations has made many question the NUS’ ability to stand for liberation against oppression.

The publication of allegations before the investigation was concluded, utter lack of concern for Ms. Dallali’s wellbeing during the process, and leaking of the decision to dismiss Ms. Dallali to media outlets and government officials before even informing Ms. Dallali herself, have led many to raise legitimate concerns with the entire process. More broadly, the problematic process raises deep concerns about the wider outcome of the broader NUS investigation, and its potential oppressive impact on Palestinian students, and those who campaign in solidarity with the Palestinian people.