New Report Could Hamstring Palestine Advocacy in Britain’s Largest Student Organization

Long a platform for anti-Zionist politics in the UK, the National Union of Students has agreed to limit speech about Israel/Palestine.

Dahlia Krutkovich
February 8, 2023

An officer of the National Union of Students speaks at an Apartheid Off Campus protest at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 2017.

Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo

ON JANUARY 12TH, the United Kingdom’s National Union of Students (NUS)—the parent organization for groups that represent students’ interests at universities across the country—released a long-awaited report investigating allegations of antisemitism within its ranks. Compiled by third-party investigator Rebecca Tuck, a lawyer hired by the NUS in May 2022, the report found that the union was a “hostile” environment for Jewish students. Its evidence included instances in which the organization or its members had expressed criticism of Israel. In response, the NUS has promised to set new limits on anti-Zionist speech and organizing as part of a broad anti-antisemitism strategy, which will be drawn up in consultation with the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), the UK’s largest Jewish student group.

The NUS commissioned the Tuck Report, as it has been called, after becoming embroiled in a series of public scandals. In March 2022, the union was criticized by Jewish community groups and Conservative government officials when it invited the rapper and Palestine-solidarity activist Kareem Dennis—stage name Lowkey—to perform at its national conference; the controversy intensified after a Jewish newspaper surfaced tweets by then-candidate for NUS president Shaima Dallali that approvingly referenced a Muslim massacre of Jews during the 7th century. (Dallali, who won the presidency in April 2022, immediately apologized, explaining that she had written the tweets at age 15 during Israel’s 2012 airstrikes on Gaza. Removed from her post in November 2022, she is now in a legal dispute with the NUS.) As media coverage of the controversies intensified, Boris Johnson’s government officially cut ties with the union—removing NUS representatives from their roles advising the government on student issues and imperiling the organization’s eligibility for public funding. The UJS—which is a constituent union of the NUS and the parent organization for Jewish Societies (J-Socs) that serve as hubs for Jewish student life at British universities—filed a formal complaint against the NUS. In response, the NUS worked closely with the UJS to set the terms of the investigation and select Tuck as the investigator. It also pledged to unconditionally accept the report’s findings and implement all of its recommendations. (Neither the NUS nor Tuck responded to requests for comment.)

In keeping with the controversies that kicked off the inquiry, much of Tuck’s 118-page report turns on the question of whether the presence of anti-Zionist political speech and activism created an antisemitic environment within the NUS. In the report’s introduction, Tuck writes that she agrees with British Jewish groups such as the Community Security Trust (CST) and the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) that argue “that many instances of antisemitism . . . occur when pro-Palestinian, or anti-Israeli or ‘anti-Zionist’ campaigning takes place.” Not all of the examples in Tuck’s report consist of anti-Zionist activity: She found, for example, that Judaism had been omitted as a religious identity from various NUS surveys and candidate nomination forms, and that multi-faith prayer rooms were used for committee meetings during prayer times for Jewish students. But the report puts those testimonies side-by-side with others from students who were offended by calls to “Free Palestine” at the end of speeches that had “nothing to do with the Middle East,” or who found discussion of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement at national conferences to be “intimidating.”

In trying to parse whether anti-Zionism amounts to antisemitism, the report makes frequent reference to the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. Palestinian-rights advocates have criticized the definition for conflating pro-Palestinian speech with anti-Jewish bigotry, pointing in particular to its attendant examples, which include assertions such as, “The existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” The report does not officially endorse the definition—in part, Tuck writes, due to the concerns that were shared with her by pro-Palestinian groups. Even so, Palestinian-rights activists note that the report frequently and favorably quotes supporters of IHRA, such as anti-boycott activist David Hirsch, a Goldsmiths University professor and author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism. Tuck also designates the pro-IHRA UJS as the primary steward of the NUS’s anti-antisemitism strategy going forward. Overall, the report’s critics argue that it tacitly embraces the IHRA’s operating framework, imperiling support for Palestinian rights. “The evidence and logic that the report relies on, as well as the conclusions it arrives at, lean heavily on pro-IHRA academics and organizations in the UK,” said Em Hilton, the UK director of Diaspora Alliance, a group that fights against antisemitism and its instrumentalization. “The IHRA creates a political climate where people are fearful of speaking out on Palestine because they’re afraid of being accused of antisemitism.”

Anti-Zionist advocates worry that the report’s recommendations will functionally eliminate the NUS as a national platform for Palestine solidarity. Historically, the union has served as an important arena for leftist and decolonial politics in the UK, including for anti-Zionist organizing: In 2015, the NUS’s executive leadership voted to endorse BDS and support individual student unions that wanted to hold boycott campaigns. Now, advocates worry that the report may encourage universities to crack down on certain types of speech. “A lot of students organizing on campuses are very worried that the takeaway from this report is that they need to moderate their activity,” said Stella Swain, youth and student campaigns officer at the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), the largest Palestinian advocacy group in the UK. “They’re worried that suddenly the NUS or a campus officer is going to tell them what they can and can’t do.”

THE TUCK REPORT is the first major probe into antisemitism in British political life since accusations of anti-Jewish bigotry engulfed the Labour Party in the late 2010s, ultimately leading to the suspension of former leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2020. The allegations against Labour, like those against the NUS half a decade later, combined reports of hostility toward Jews with complaints about anti-Zionist political speech. The result of the Labour controversies was, in large part, to speed the adoption of the IHRA by a wide range of UK institutions—especially after a 2016 report by the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) that accused a range of organizations, including the NUS and the Labour Party, of being soft on anti-Jewish sentiment. (The HASC report was criticized for disproportionately focusing on allegations of antisemitism in left-wing political organizations even though most antisemitic incidents in the UK that year were attributed to the extreme right.) In 2017, the NUS voted to adopt the definition, though it did not commit to any specific enforcement mechanism or implementation plan. In 2018, Labour, too, adopted a version of the IHRA as part of its Code of Conduct for party members and staff; though the party originally omitted some of the definition’s controversial examples, it later added them under pressure from Jewish organizations.

Pro-IHRA campaigners were especially successful in targeting British universities—119 out of 133 institutions now employ the definition to guide their complaints and disciplinary processes. Many embraced it in 2020 after then-education secretary Gavin Williamson threatened to cut the funding of schools that refused. This broadscale adoption has already impacted Palestine advocacy on university campuses. “The IHRA definition makes the issue of Palestine toxic and creates a chilling effect around activism,” said Ben Jamal, director of the PSC, which submitted a statement to Tuck regarding the dangers of the definition. “Campus officials who have no idea what the IHRA definition is or means will do a bit of googling and find that an official definition of antisemitism says you can’t call for a boycott of Israel. And then they’ll avoid supporting or facilitating events for Palestine.” (Jamal reached out to Jewish Currents post-publication to clarify that, while the IHRA definition itself does not explicitly condemn BDS, prominent Israel advocates and politicians frequently employ the definition to argue BDS is antisemitic, which Jamal argues influences campus officials.)

Entering this hotly politicized terrain, Tuck—an employment and discrimination specialist who admitted during the investigation to knowing “little” about antisemitism politics in the UK—sought to hear from a variety of stakeholders. During her months-long investigation, she gathered evidence via an open submission period, inviting students and civil society groups to send statements and conducting follow-up interviews. Though she consulted mainstream pro-IHRA Jewish groups like the CST and CAA as well as the UJS, she also cites prominent Jewish critics of the IHRA, like the writer and researcher Antony Lerman. But Palestinian-rights organizations were largely excluded from the report. Groups like the PSC and the British Palestinian Committee (BPC), a civil society group of British Palestinian professionals, were able to submit during the open comment period, but were only granted an interview with Tuck after filing a complaint with NUS, according to BPC director Sara Husseini.

In the report, Tuck stops short of endorsing IHRA outright. She affirms “the democratic right of NUS as well as constituent conferences” to support BDS, writing that students’ discomfort should not foreclose debate on a topic that is “not inherently antisemitic.” But she also emphasizes that “the BDS campaign along with initiatives on campuses such as Israel Apartheid Week” do “impact negatively on Jewish students.” As such, she argues that “criticism of the Israeli government . . . must take place within NUS in a manner which recognises that Jewish students are a welcomed and valued group, and that many of them may well be Zionist.” She therefore recommends the creation of new rules of debate to protect Jewish students from feeling marginalized by discussion of Israel/Palestine—an emphasis that has pleased some pro-IHRA advocates. “You can have political activism that in and of itself may be entirely legitimate but that has such a detrimental impact on one particular section of the student community that it’s just better if it doesn’t happen,” said Dave Rich, the director of policy for the CST, referring to BDS.

Even if Tuck herself does not explicitly advocate for a specific definition of antisemitism, she recommends that, having already adopted the IHRA on a pro forma basis, the NUS should put it into practice more fully. She suggests, for example, that all candidates who stand for leadership positions within the union should be required to endorse the definition and scrutinized to make sure that their behavior comports with it. “The vast majority of Palestinian students would find themselves unable to do that,” said Jamal. Palestinian-rights advocates are also concerned that the report’s recommendations give the UJS too much power over anti-antisemitism work within NUS, instructing the union to treat the Jewish group as its primary partner. Tuck “calls for [the NUS to produce] ‘guidance’ on how to talk about Palestine without dipping into antisemitism, but it becomes clear over the course of the report that the [UJS], and not Palestinians, will be consulted heavily in the creation of those materials,” said Jamal. NUS has also said that it will consult with the CST on monitoring antisemitism within the organization.

The UJS, which did not respond to requests for comment, has come under fire from progressive Jews for centering Zionism and Israel in many of its campus events and campaigns: The organization employs three Israeli shlichim (emissaries) in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel—a group that facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel and promotes relationships between the country and diasporic communities—as well as an additional Israel Engagement Sabbatical Officer. Anti-Zionist Jews say they often feel ostracized from J-Socs and at UJS events. “The UJS claims to represent all Jewish students, but there are four committee members who deal with Israel engagement and no one to go to if you’re a Jew who feels marginalized within Jewish spaces,” said Sara Pelham, a student organizer with Jewish Students for Justice, a group that opposes the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

In the wake of the Tuck Report’s release, groups on both sides of the political spectrum are pushing for a more definitive conclusion on the matter of the IHRA. Right-wing organizations like CAMERA UK, an Israel-advocacy group and media watchdog, are calling on the NUS to agree to use the IHRA in all new anti-antisemitism materials. Progressive groups like Diaspora Alliance are also trying to “organize in the gaps of the report,” said Hilton, adding, “We’re trying to build safe communities and spaces for Jews in a way that’s not in tension with Palestinian solidarity and activism.”

According to Jamal, the clearest takeaway from the report, and from the NUS’s deference to pro-IHRA groups, is that the playbook used against Labour in 2018 remains effective in the UK. “We tried to warn the Labour leadership in 2018: ‘You’re looking at how the Labour Party gets itself out of this hole, but if you defer to certain groups, it will give them authority and legitimacy—and this process will be replicated,’” he said, recalling advocates’ concern when the party adopted IHRA and its examples. “It wasn’t rocket science to guess that universities would be next.”

This article has been updated to add a post-publication comment from Ben Jamal.

Dahlia Krutkovich is a former Jewish Currents fellow. She is currently on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books.