Anti-Semitism rears its head in the NUS – and their defence is abhorrent│ Steve Harris

UK politics has been dominated for the last couple of years with anti-Semitism scandals. While many of the issues have been around problems in the Labour Party, the National Union of Students (NUS) has been consistently under the same scrutiny. However, now an NUS National Executive Committee (NEC) member has been caught going far beyond the pale with his comments.

Ayo Olatunji, who represents students on NUS NEC, has made a number of comments the Union of Jewish Students has described as anti-Semitic. On a number of occasions, he has compared Israel to the Nazi state. This is not a unique political position. Much more deplorably, however, he has given credence to the conspiracy that the (Jewish) Rothschild family control and manipulate the world.

Indulging this conspiracy is anti-Semitism. To most people, I hope this is common sense. In Ayo’s world, however, it is not. Since the allegations of anti-Semitism were made against him by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), he has lashed out in a way that is both abhorrent, but also sadly representative of a lot of people’s approach to anti-Semitism inside the worst of the regressive left today. It is worth examining the horrible things he has said in detail.

Every group has individuals who are wrong: Meyer is one of them. He has said things such as “Judaism in Israel has been substituted by the Holocaust religion”, and claims the Israeli state conspired to use the Holocaust to justify ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. He claims Israel teaches students the ‘blood and soil’ ideology of Nazis in classrooms. He believes Jews caused 9/11. There is good reason why Meyer was roundly criticised in the media when Corbyn appeared at events with him.

Ayo’s defence of this comparison give us a clue as to the ignorance behind his views. He tells us that Israel is like Palestine because:

  • Israel keeps Palestine in a (metaphorical) open air prison, limiting access to food, water, and electricity.
  • Gaza contains numerous checkpoints Palestinians cannot go through.
  • Palestinians have poor healthcare, and on one awful occasion a paramedic was shot by Israel.
  • Israel killed 166 people from March to May 2018.
  • Palestinians are treated like second-class citizen

There are many things wrong with his claims, but in the context of comparing Israel to Nazism, getting bogged down in this debate is beside the point. Instead, we should think about why the crimes of the Nazi state against the Jews was so truly abhorrent:

  • The Nazi state systematically dehumanised, deprived of property, and executed millions of truly innocent Jews.
  • The Nazi state actively sought out Jews to kill, going so far as to take resources away from the war effort to further their genocide.
  • An ideology and pseudoscience was cultivated wholly designed to destroy the cultural heritage of Judaism and justify the killing and inhuman status of Jewish people.
  • An industry sprang up around the murder and dehumanisation of Jews. Fortunes were made in the dehumanisation of others.

The scale and purpose of what Jews in Nazi Germany experienced is incomparably different to the experience of Palestine. The industrialised killing or ideological systematic dehumanisation of Jews is not incidental to what the Nazi state did – ‘Denying Jews healthcare’ was not the issue. To say the Palestinian experience to the abject terror of Nazi Germany is comparable is utterly abhorrent.

Ayo Otalunji doubles down on the claim he is in the right for comparing Israel to the Nazi state. The NUS NEC officer condemns UJS for no supporting his anti-eugenics work while at UCL, claiming “UJS and its president only criticism [him] when [he] speak[s] out against Israel but are silent on [his] antisemitism work”. The implication is rather obvious: UJS acts on behalf of and defends Israel, rather than Jewish students.

This ignores that UJS does not owe their thanks to Ayo for campaigning on their behalf. This ignores that some students might feel uncomfortable being represented by someone who defends anti-Semitic tropes. This ignores his blatant moral licensing, Ayo using his campaigning against anti-Semitism to justify his immunity from being called an anti-Semite.

The UJS has and continues to do fantastic work representing Jewish students across the country. They are active, energetic, and connected to Jewish societies across the country. Instead, Ayo focuses on the fact that Jewish students are supported in trips to the only Jewish state in the world, founded after the horrors of the Holocaust.

NUS grants minority groups the right to autonomously define their definition of racism. Regardless of that debate, this means Jewish students have the right to define anti-Semitism. Jewish students in NUS have defined anti-Semitism by the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

The trouble arises because Ayo has incontrovertibly been anti-Semitic by these guidelines. Indulging the Rothschild conspiracy and propagating a comparison of Israel to Nazism are two cases of this. Instead of accepting that and improving, however, Ayo engages in mental gymnastics that would be impressive if it were not over such a serious issue: he accepts Jews have the right to define anti-Semitism for themselves but does not himself feel obligated to subscribe to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, because Palestinians reject the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

It is one of those arguments which seems so obvious that it is difficult to be bothered to say. Palestinian isn’t the same as Jewish.  If groups have the right to autonomously define their discrimination, then other groups do not get to define discrimination for them.  Indeed, the ‘100 groups’ he cites are a list of mostly either Muslim campaign groups, Palestinian groups, or NUS campaign sections – with some wild cards thrown in, including three Grenfell campaign groups, and the Congo Great Lakes Initiative, a group dedicated to promoting Congolese Heritage in the UK. Ayo in essence wants to have his Anti-Semitic cake and eat it too, barely attempting to justify his nonsense.

Scarily, Ayo refuses to step down from the NUS UK NEC. He is adamant he is in the right and refuses to rescind his beliefs. He claims calling him anti-Semitic is akin to libel. I’d be interested to know how any court case on that point would go.

The worst part however is the consistent claims he has made to go out of his way to host numerous workshops on antisemitism and the Holocaust, and the demonisation of Jewish people. When someone who equivocates between Israel and Nazi Germany, bars Jewish people from defining their own discrimination, indulges in Rothschild slanders and defends his actions when called out organises events to inform people on anti-Semitism, we are in dangerous territory.

As of yet, NUS have failed to publicly respond to any of the comments by news media and UJS. Hopefully, soon, right action will be taken.

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