Representatives from the Durham Student’s Union (DSU) and Jewish Society (JSoc) have voiced criticism following the National Union of Students (NUS)’s decision to invite controversial rapper, Lowkey, to its conference this week and the subsequent suggestion that Jewish students should simply leave the room during the performance.
The vocally pro-Palestine rapper was due to open the NUS liberation conference which will be attended by Durham Students’ Union (DSU) Welfare and Liberation Officer and NUS delegates and will be held in Liverpool on 30th-31st March during a week of centenary celebrations. Offkey has since cancelled his performance and NUS has defended its decision to invite him, but apologised to Jewish students who felt unwelcome at the conference.
Representatives of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) raised concerns about the planned performance by Lowkey who has previously voiced support for Professor David Miller, who was sacked from Bristol University over alleged anti-Israeli comments, and former Labour MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended from the party during an anti-Semitism row.
During a meeting with UJS representatives, NUS President Larissa Kennedy allegedly suggested that Jewish attendees should remove themselves to a separate area during the performance.
Durham Jewish Society told Palatinate “We, as a Jewish Society, stand against all forms of antisemitism. Institutional discrimination and the comments that have been made are unacceptable, and we strongly oppose any action to aim to segregate Jews.
DSU also commented on the controversy, saying, “Jewish students have legitimate questions about decisions made by NUS in planning their National Conference, and the poor response that came when those decisions were challenged. There has been, unambiguously, a failure to recognise the risk and the reality of antisemitism.”
“We can only bring about the changes we want to education and society if we do it collectively, through NUS. We’re stronger together. But when some students are excluded from NUS, we are all made weaker.
Durham JSOC did not call for DSU to boycott the event, instead saying “we hope the DSU understand the severity of the situation and are prepared to represent Jewish students at the conference, especially in light of recent events.”
DSU have said that “we’ll insist that the NUS leadership recognise the problems they’ve created. We trust in their ability to reflect, and to make changes in partnership with Jewish students and their representatives. We’ll hold them accountable for making our national student movement welcoming for Jewish students”.
The NUS has responded to backlash, explaining, “We invited Lowkey to speak […] because we feel his contribution would have been invaluable to students’ discussions on decolonising education, class injustice, and divesting from companies that harm people and planet globally. Whilst we welcome genuine political debate, we’ve been sad to see the use of harassment and misinformation against Lowkey.”
The NUS also apologised to Jewish students, saying that they were “horrified to know that some students in our community, particularly Jewish students, may now be wondering if they will be fully comfortable at our upcoming events… We want to be crystal clear that we are actively looking forward to welcoming Jewish students to NUS National Conference 2022 in Liverpool”.
Several groups have put pressure on the NUS President to resign. Conservative MP Andrew Percy, Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, said “The suggestion that Jewish students should be effectively separated is beyond sickening. Rather than cancelling the performance by Lowkey, who has made increasingly offensive and erratic statements in relation to Israel and Jews, the NUS is effectively victim-blaming by calling for Jewish students to be effectively separated off. This is sinister, it is sickening and the President of the NUS should resign for sanctioning such a suggestion”.
The NUS was called to answer questions to MPS on the Education Select Committee, although the NUS representative pulled out due to illness. The NUS appeared to respond to this call in a tweet, saying the “old-school bullying culture is never acceptable including at [government] committees”.
Chair of the committee, MP Robert Halfon told LBC “I really worry about what’s going on with the NUS — it appears to be almost institutional anti-Semitism within that organisation — telling Jews to sit away or be segregated, inviting this controversial rapper who’s accused of all kinds of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic statements which have caused grave upset to Jewish people and people of other faiths as well. It’s quite extraordinary.” He went on to warn that an investigation into antisemitism in the organisation could be called in the future.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson also commented on the issue during Prime Minister’s Questions last week, responding to a query from Percy by saying “our universities for far too long have been tolerant of casual or systematic anti-Semitism”.
Image: Anna Tatham