Working in student politics can perplex even those of us who consider ourselves to be young(ish). I’m not too old and cynical to snigger at ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘micro-aggressions’ and to want to create a safe space. I actually think the ‘snowflake’ generation has created an avalanche in advances on diversity and inclusion. What I do accept is that student politics can be more radical or ridiculous than ‘grown-up’ politics.
Sadly, this isn’t the case with the continuing calamity of the Labour Party’s attempts to confront antisemitism. Following three investigations and inquiries – the first prompted by an ‘outing’ of Oxford University Labour Club members who had a “problem with Jews”– we have somehow reached another low.
Jeremy Corbyn, Jennie Formby and the Labour NEC sent what Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis described as a “message of contempt” in response to the unprecedented joint letter from 68 Rabbis and representations reflecting the view of the vast majority of Jewish people in Britain. They decided that the following are not antisemitic: accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel or World Jewry than their home country; suggesting Israel’s very existence is racist; comparing Israeli polices to those of the Nazis. Then they began a disciplinary process against Margaret Hodge in a manner that seemingly contravenes the Labour Party’s own rules. Whilst processes investigating claims of anti-Semitic behaviour have taken over twelve months, it took just twelve hours to start investigating a Jewish MP celebrated for inflicting a humiliating defeat on Nick Griffin and the BNP.
What might student politicians teach the Labour leadership?
Firstly, they can follow student leaders’ respect for the notion that groups facing discrimination are best placed to understand the prejudices they themselves experience. Even when the National Union of Students [NUS] was led by someone who engaged in hateful language that Labour does consider antisemitic, there was broad support for adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Student activism in support of the Palestinians dispels the myth that this definition prohibits fervent criticism of Israel. This speech from a member of a left-wing faction during a debate at NUS conference, by someone who shares much of Corbyn and Momentum’s worldview, highlights even the example of “holding Israel to a higher standard than other countries” can be respected and robustly argued for by those on the left.
Secondly, the student movement can show the Labour leadership how they should acknowledge representative mandates. One of my proudest moments as CEO of the Union of Jewish Students [UJS] was watching the then UJS President-elect Josh Holt at the NUS Conference where the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA] definition on antisemitism was adopted. Appreciating the dissenting view of the Jewish student who had spoken against adopting IHRA’s definition and examples, Josh reminded the conference that he spoke as the next leader (with 682 of the 1049 votes cast) of the democratic and cross-communal Jewish student union. Some may not have agreed with the full language of IHRA. Yet in a context where self-definition, self-determination and representative unions are cherished, progressive principles trumped political point scoring. Consider how Josh’s words to NUS national conference could apply to those within Labour who are prioritising Jewish fringe positions over our democratic and representative bodies: “in our movement we talk a lot about autonomy, we are taking a vote here today on an issue that has already been decided by the overwhelming majority of Jewish students, it’s not for you to tell them otherwise”.
Finally, campus organisations that have tolerated, or ignored, antisemitism demonstrate a humility sorely lacking from Labour’s leaders. Since NUS was led by someone twice the subject of disciplinary processes for using antisemitic language, NUS professional and sabbatical staff have worked tirelessly to repair relationships and regain Jewish students’ trust. They have joined UJS programmes in Poland and Israel, consulted UJS on their race equity plan, and apologised unequivocally when subsequent mistakes were made.
Following the shocking situation at Oxford University Labour Club,Labour students at universities around the country have partnered with UJS and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) to deliver training to over 600 Labour Club volunteers, in how to understand and combat anti-Semitism. When a co-Chair of Manchester Labour Club was found to have compared Israel to ISIS and suggested Hitler was Jewish, it was the pressure from many within the Labour club that led to his swift resignation.
The factional friction within the Labour party and the Labour leadership’s preference for protest politics often remind me of student politics. Unfortunately, when it comes to progressive values of anti-racism, self-definition and representative mandates, the supposed ‘grown-ups’ lack the conviction and compassion demonstrated by NUS and Labour Students. Maybe Corbyn, Formby and the NEC need to return to being students and learn from student activists how to lead a genuinely inclusive and anti-Racist movement?
David Davidi-Brown is CEO of the Union of Jewish Students [UJS]
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