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Motion to disaffiliate from NUS over antisemitism report withdrawn from Oxford SU

Following an independent investigation that found evidence of extensive antisemitism within the National Union of Students (NUS), a motion to call a referendum on disaffiliation was put to the Oxford University SU Student Council. However, the motion was withdrawn over concerns that it lacked clarity.

The motion, proposed by Magdalen JCR president Ciaron Tobin and seconded by Mundher Ba-Shammakh, claimed the SU should disaffiliate from the NUS because the SU “serves the interest of Oxford students more”, citing “the horrendous issues the NUS has continually been associated with” alongside “numerous robust reasons including financial cost”. The motion resolved to “call a binding referendum on the SU’s continued affiliation with the NUS, with a view to disaffiliating from the NUS”.

An amendment was proposed by Joshua Loo to change the wording of the motion to clearly state that “in light of antisemitic conduct in the NUS and the findings of the report, the question of continued affiliation should be put to the membership”. Introducing his amendment in the council meeting, Loo spoke of the antisemitism report as “pretty grim” and showing “utterly contemptible behaviour”.

A report was published on 12th January on Rebecca Tuck KC’s independent investigation into antisemitism within the NUS which the union commissioned itself in May 2022. According to NUS, the report that has emerged subsequently is “a detailed and shocking account of antisemitism within the student movement”. The report itself states that the investigation found “numerous instances of antisemitism” including antisemitic tropes and holding Jewish students responsible for the actions of the Israeli government. One testimony in the report noted “I never initially entered student politics to talk solely about Jewish issues, but my time in the movement became defined with defending Jewish students’ rights to even be in the room”. In another incident, a Jewish student was targeted with a tweet that “invoked the notoriously antisemitic blood libel … that Jews use the blood of babies or young children to make Matzah”.

Following the report, the NUS states that “[t]here is no place for antisemitism within NUS and we are committed to ensuring that Jewish students feel safe and welcome in every corner of our movement”. The NUS has developed an “action plan”, based on the investigation’s recommendations, that includes establishing “[p]ermanent formal representation for Jewish students”.

In debating whether Loo’s amendment should be accepted, discussion at the SU Student Council meeting shifted to reasons for and against disaffiliation. Members of the council meeting spoke with frustration of limited SU budgets, especially for the Disabilities Campaign and the LGBTQ+ Campaign, and noted that the SU pays about £20,000 in NUS membership fees. Others expressed concern that disaffiliation would dilute the SU’s influence on student issues that extend beyond Oxford.

A representative from the Oxford Jewish Society (JSoc) said they had been disturbed by the contents of the antisemitism report and wanted to make sure the NUS had the best chance of actualising the report’s recommendations. The JSoc representative asked for clarification on the motive of the motion, noting that if the motion was primarily motivated by the potential financial and bureaucratic benefits of NUS disaffiliation then the timing was unfortunate as the ensuing debate would revolve around antisemitism and possibly impact Jewish students. Ciaron Tobin, the motion’s proposer, was unavailable for discussion as he was attending the meeting online and had lost connection.

Mundher, the motion’s seconder, told Cherwell: “My reasons for [supporting disaffiliation] are [three] fold; [antisemitism], dissatisfaction in the NUS and a view that money can be better spent on a local level. First and foremost [antisemitism] at the SU is something that cannot be ignored – to represent students you must represent students of all faiths and when there is a pattern of behaviour among the higher levels of this organisation that has spanned the last decade […] I cannot stay silent. […]

“Secondly I [believe] the NUS spends a great deal of time embroiled in policy debates, activism and political dealings unrelated to student issues and while I welcome any student who feels empowered enough to take on a national issue and attempt to affect change on a matter they deeply care about, I do not believe that extends into the duties of the NUS. The NUS has one and only one remit and that is to fight for the interests of students, be it for increased bursaries, rent cuts [or] student support from the government […].

“And finally the Oxford SU pays £20,478 in membership fees to the NUS a year, that money can and should be spent on our students which we have a moral duty to look after, with SU money going to local issues we have a better ability to […] deal with pressing issues such as the sexual harassment on our campus.”

Jojo Sugarman, JSoc President, told Cherwell: “My comment before, which I stand by was that, ‘The report confirms, as Jewish students have long been aware, that the NUS has a problem with antisemitism. We very much hope that NUS use this report as an opportunity to alter the hostile environment that it has created for Jewish students, by following the recommendations made by Rececca Tuck’. That comment was not made in relation to any talk of disaffiliation. As the representative of [J]ewish students, [JSoc] has not been spoken to by those proposing disaffiliation. Our main concern is to represent Jewish students and we try to stay away from political matters. We would need to speak to Jewish students and to learn more about the consequences of disaffiliation to determine whether it is the right thing to support.”

Members of the meeting debated different procedural means to change and clarify the motion, with suggestions ranging from delaying the motion to the next meeting or moving it to a special or ‘extraordinary meeting’. A general consensus emerged that withdrawing the motion altogether was the best option. This would allow for consultation with students likely to be affected with a view to submitting a new and improved motion in due course, although no concrete plans were made. By this point it had become apparent that the meeting was inquorate because it had been running for nearly three hours and too many members had already left. Ciaron Tobin reconnected briefly via video to withdraw his motion and the meeting was brought to a close. 

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