Why I won’t be at tomorrow’s NUS NEC meeting

In April 2015 (and 2016) I successfully ran to sit on NUS’ National Executive Council (NEC). I did not choose enter student politics to solely represent Jews. I became involved because I saw changes I wanted to make, both locally in Birmingham and nationally that I believed would make the experiences of students across the UK much better.

Our education and welfare systems in the UK are on the verge of collapse, and students will face the brunt of this, if they’re not doing so already. I wanted to take the fight to the Government on behalf of all students on the issues that matter most to them; the cost of living at and access to University and College, the funding of our welfare services and the cuts being made affecting our students in some of the most integral professions — nurses and doctors. I was genuinely excited to shake up our movement and play my part in ensuring it was a national union that was truly reflective of the 7 million students from 600 Student Unions we claim to represent. Almost a year and a half later, and even after standing for re-election, I am writing this piece explaining how I cannot physically bring myself to attend our upcoming NEC meeting on Thursday.

This Monday morning, 2 hours before an exam, I realised that NEC was later that week and it sent me into a complete breakdown. I’m not quite sure what sparked it or what the final straw was. I’m unsure whether it was the thought of having my voice (and also the voices of thousands of Jewish students) ignored again by our National President, or the torrent of tweets blindly in support of her and her previous rhetoric, which even she has acknowledged as deeply offensive, directed my way. Potentially it was having to sit in a room being snarled at, talked about and looked at in disgust by people who do not know me, and have barely uttered a handful of words to me before. Though it was probably the thought of having to be in a room with people whose history of antisemitism, acceptance of it, or failure to challenge it makes me feel unsafe and unwelcome. People whom, for too long, I have kept my feelings about bottled up.

It is impossible to be able to sit in a room with a person who used triggering language of the Holocaust (‘Final Solution’) whilst talking about Jewish representation, and then refused to apologise for it because the Jew who asked for the apology was not someone she directly represents.

It is impossible to be able to sit in a room with people who deem the murderers of innocent Israeli Jews as martyrs, and click attending on social media to vigils mourning their deaths.

It is impossible to be able to sit in a room with people who claim that a context, whatever the context, justifies an anti-Semitic statement or an attack on a Jewish person.

It is impossible to sit in a room with someone who wrote in an article that ‘antisemitism is a tired old accusation from Zionists, retreating behind mendacious slurs’.

And of course, it is impossible to sit in a room with someone whose past comments even the Home Affairs Select Committee believe ‘smacks of outright racism’.

Yet it’s even more impossible to have to speak meeting after meeting, time and time again defending the rights for Jewish students to even be in the room to these people, and not let it get to you.

But it does get to me. And this time, it has got to me a little too much.

Some people in the movement have applauded the deterioration of my mental health as a victory; the ‘Zio’ won’t be in the room or there will be no more time for me to conjure up another ‘smear’ campaign. Until now, these experiences have led me to stand up stronger and fight back harder. But in all honesty, I have been too scared to talk about the effect it has all had on my mental health, let alone let myself acknowledge it even exists in the first place.

Because every day friends, family, colleagues and people I have never even met before praise my strength and courage to stand up for Jewish students and for what I believe in. And I am extremely grateful for that. But only rarely do people ask if I am okay, if my mental and physical health is where it should be and if the constant threat and fear of fascist attacks I face daily has gone. Because the answer to all those questions is no. The past year and a half has been really, really tough. And I’ve just mustered up the courage to speak about it.

Mental health and a deterioration of it largely from online trolling and attacks is becoming ever more frequent, especially within the student movement and on campuses. People from minority backgrounds and identities, and especially those from more than one, are disproportionally undermined, attacked and threatened on social media. It is a truly nasty playing field, where so called ‘comrades’ will only offer support or meaningless ‘solidarity’ if it suits their political agenda. Our membership and our peers are more and more afraid to speak up online (and in person) due to the fear of a backlash. Yet this just further silences their voices, and discourages them from further involvement in society and in our movement. Students are afraid to speak about their mental health for fear it makes them look weak and frail. We must not forget that mental health can often be a taboo subject in minority communities. It certainly is in mine, and that too needs to change.

Antisemitism is far too institutionalised in NUS, in society and in people’s mind-sets that it cannot be eradicated overnight. However hopelessly optimistic I have been in the past, I doubt this post will change much, as people will always turn a blind eye to the effects their actions have on others. I wonder how long it will take after I publish this to be accused of lying and exaggerating my oppression to look like the victim. I’ll certainly be mocked on social media, if not worse, because that is the price for standing up to what you believe in online these days, especially if you’re a woman. I’ll probably be threatened in some way, privately or by those braver comrades, publicly. Students will continue to be told by other students or student leaders never to agree or even engage with me, and that to be pro-Palestinian means not standing up for Jewish students in the face of anti-Semitism for fear of coming across the slightest bit ‘Zionist’.

And most likely, others will undermine my experiences and my truths by trying to state another oppression is worse. And I’ll stick to my word that oppression is NOT a game. Oppression is not a competition. No person’s oppression trumps another, and certainly, no one’s should be used and exploited to try to do so. Combatting one group’s oppression should never come at the expense of another’s. Oppression affects people’s lives; their livelihoods. It is not a trivial game of chess. And sadly, some people just don’t see it that way.

I apologise to the Jewish students that I will let down this week. I am still committed, and will always be, to defending my voice as a Jewish woman, and my integrity. Defending our right to walk around campus free from fear and persecution and even defending our right to define antisemitism for ourselves, not being told what it is. Defending our freedom to be able to walk into a room in NUS and not feel intimidated or scared, defending Jewish students in attempts to have our voice silenced and defending the fact that antisemitism is a serious form of racism that no excuse or context could ever justify. But just this time I am going to have to take a break.

Regrettably, the future of Jewish students’ involvement in NUS looks bleak. It deeply upsets me that our annual UJS conference is in a few days and there is a motion to stop any engagement between UJS and NUS, but I am not surprised and I completely understand. I haven’t made my mind up on how I’m going to vote yet and I wish this wasn’t the situation thousands of Jewish students find themselves in. It’s not how it should be, but it is how it is.

I really do not want to put any Jewish students off getting involved in NUS and fighting for our rights as students, and also as Jews. But it’s time to stop bowing to taboo and staying silent about the effects it is having on us, mainly because we have done for too long and perhaps it’s just time to be a little bit selfish.