Carlus Hudson – PhD Student at University of Portsmouth, researching student anti-racist activism in the ‘long seventies’.
As of 2012, the National Union of Students (NUS) has supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign regarding Israel. The original policy was directed at mineral water company Mey Eden for ‘their bottling plant in the Golan Heights’. This policy was built on in 2014 to take a broader BDS position including calling for an arms embargo against Israel. There is an expectation that NUS and especially its ‘foreign policy’ positions have little impact or significance, yet its BDS policies have attracted outcry from the Israeli government. Furthermore, an NUS officer was recently ‘caught in an undercover sting offering to help oust the organisation’s president’.
The collective memory of student politics, its organisations and the student movement, is very short. Knowledge of what happens in any event tends to disappear soon after the students involved in it have graduated or finished their terms of office in NUS. Much of what has happened recently in NUS on BDS and the organisation’s wider position on Israel and Palestine may soon have the same fate. This is distressing, considering that it concerns NUS’ response to an occupation and innumerate human rights violations (but obviously nowhere near as distressing as the occupation and violations themselves).
Examining the history of NUS can address this problem, and add an extra layer of context to the organisation’s positions today. The purpose of this post is not to provide in-depth analysis of the historical and contemporary oppression of Palestinians – this has been done already by those far more qualified to speak on it. This post will present several primary sources on NUS’ engagement with the issue with light commentary, to demonstrate the value of further and deeper research.
NUS only began to take official political positions at all from 1969, where its national conference voted through a constitutional change to do exactly that. This shift resulted from the frustrations of students at the inaction of NUS, especially its lack of support for the wider student movement’s protests against the Vietnam War. The Radical Students Alliance (RSA) and Vietnam Solidarity Campaign were the main organisations that students chose to work through instead. In turn influenced NUS: RSA leader Jack Straw being elected NUS President in 1969. While NUS then took several more years to adopt a full position on the Vietnam War, by which time the war was over, this constitutional change opened the door for numerous other campaigns such as Anti-Apartheid and – later in the 1970s – the struggle against the National Front.
One of the issues that took a long time to be addressed by NUS was Israel and Palestine. The National Executive’s report to 1970 Conference in Margate included the first mention of Palestine by NUS.
Kate Hoey represented NUS in Tunis for a four-day seminar entitled “The Struggle Against Colonialism in Palestine and Africa.” This was opened by Mr. Mohamed Masmoudi, the Tunisian Foreign Minister who, in a long speech, outlined the favourable response from his Government to the Rogers Plan. He attacked some Arab countries for not being realistic about the situation in the Middle East. He opposed ideas which divided the Arabs when they should be united, and spoke of “colonialism” in Palestine as part of a wider problem in the whole of Africa. The problems of Palestine could be solved only by the Palestinian people themselves, he said.
This speech caused the first rift of the meeting. The spokesman for the General Union of Palestinian Students was emphatic in his rejection of the Peace Plan, but in the Press and radio coverage that day his attitude was not mentioned, and great emphasis was placed on the Tunisian Government’s attitude to it. The Palestinians felt that they were being used as a political pawn by the Tunisian Government. They were also angry that no students from any of the Arab countries who were against the plan had been asked. The following morning they decided to leave the seminar in protest and were supported in this by UNEF and the German tricontinental unions.
Kate Koey outlined how NUS decided policy – and added that we had no policy on Palestine. She said that on the other aspect of the seminar – Apartheid in South Africa – did have a policy and mentioned some of the things NUS had been doing in the past year on the issue. She also said that perhaps in the future NUS might have a policy on the very complex problem of Palestine. 
The experience of Kate Hoey – then a member of NUS’ national executive and now a Labour MP – at this seminar did not lead quickly to the formulation of a policy. At an NUS conference the following April, there was a contentious debate spread across a number of procedural motions about whether or not to invite a member of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) speak. Arguing against inviting a GUPS speaker, a member of the NUS National Executive,
… felt that to invite a speaker from one of the parties before they had had a chance to use the machinery of Conference, to get a motion and amendments together, would be wrong. Such a contribution would, it would seem, almost inevitably lead to confusion and, perhaps, bitterness on the part of those who were not given adequate opportunity to speak. This bitterness, they felt, would only impede the development of a rational policy by the Union in regard to the Middle East. Therefore he asked Conference to rescind the decision that a member of GUPS be allowed to speak tonight and that they explain carefully to him this decision and how they hoped that, perhaps, at next Conference, there could be a debate about the Middle East crisis. 
Kate Hoey, breaking ranks with others on the Executive, argued that the conference should:
…reconsider decision and allow the GUPS representative to speak, followed by someone from the Israeli side. If they did not, not only were they going against a fair representation of national delegations but it would be an insult to a visitor. 
Delegates then voted in favour of Jack Straw’s suggestion to ‘return to this issue’ later in the conference. By the time delegates did come back to it, the issue was dropped due to time constraints. 
Procedural and bureaucratic wrangling was a huge problem even when it came to inviting a single particular speaker to address a conference – and even when it was done by student activists who, a few years earlier, would have faced this exact challenge from the previous ‘apolitical’ leadership of NUS before 1969.
It was not until 1974 that GUPS had the opportunity to address NUS conference. A statement by the president of GUPS’ UK branch was read out:
Friends and comrades: The General Union of Palestinian Students thanks the NUS for inviting us to attend your conference. We take this opportunity to express our utmost support and solidarity with the cause of students in Britain in their struggle for higher grants, better housing, social facilities and the democratisation of education. Your demands, just as they are, hard to obtain without a persistent struggle, these demands when compared with the struggle that Palestine students are engaged in look remote and distant. The Palestine students, comrades and brothers, are fighting for no less a cause than the very existence of their people, the people of Palestine. We will not here attempt to go through the history of the conflict in the Middle East. It is our belief that the great wall of lies, deception and falsehood built by Zionism and Imperialism about the nature of the conflict and the cause of our people, this great wall has crumbled. But what we want to explain to this conference is what the Palestine people and their revolution mean when they put forward the slogan of a united, secular, democratic Palestine as a final and only solution to the conflict (a boo). Today there is Israel and over one and a half million under its occupation and over 1 ½ million as refugees. We say that this status quo is the source of all the wars of the past and the source of any future war. The Palestine people, the victims of the status quo, have not and will not accept this status quo. Zionism, as a racialist and reactionary ideology, wants to see every Jew in the world to go to Palestine and in the process disposes the local population. The Palestine people see very clearly that it is not the Jews who are their enemy but the Zionist racialist ideology. The Jews have become the pawns and the cannon fodder of Zionism and US imperialism. Based on this fact, the Palestine revolution proposes the establishment of a united, secular democratic state in Palestine in which all the Jews presently living in the area can live on equal basis with the rest of the Palestinian people, whether Moslems [sic] or Christians. Some people condemn this proposal as Utopia that cannot possibly be practical or can be implemented. We recognise that this solution will not become a reality overnight. There will be a long and practical struggle in which an increasing number of Jews will take part against Zionist and imperialist domination of the area. But hard as this struggle may be and long as it will take, it remains the only possible and permanent solution given the impossibility of co-existence between expansionist and sectarian Zionism backed by imperialism and the interest of the people of Palestine of any religion, colour or creed. The people of Palestine will continue their struggle to achieve this aim. We are not alone – the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America and progressive movements in Europe and America are with us. Our people will continue the struggle until final victory. We thank you again for your invitation and wish you every success in your conference and your just struggle. 
There are two things that are most striking about this statement: firstly the embarrassingly long period of time between the Struggle Against Colonialism seminar in Tunis in 1970 and GUPS being allowed to contribute to an NUS conference five years later; secondly the unconditional solidarity shown to British students by GUPS in spite of that.
NUS documents from this period show numerous problems with the organisation’s decision-making process, problems which persist in NUS today. They also emphasise the role of NUS in the wider international student movement – the problems with NUS here have nothing to do with the organisation being too internationally-focused, as has been argued in the most recent NUS disaffiliation campaigns. Rather the problem is that NUS has not been internationally-focused enough.
This article is the first of two, the second of which will cover the development of actual NUS policy on Israel and Palestine and be posted in the coming months.
 NUS, “Executive Report for Presentation to November Conference, Margate 1970”, p. 104. Document held at NUS Scotland office, Edinburgh.
 NUS, “Minutes and Summary of Proceedings, April Conference held at Lancaster University,” 1971, p. 103. Document held at NUS Scotland office, Edinburgh.
 NUS, “April Conference,” 1971, p. 112.
 NUS, “April Conference, 1971, p. 113 + p. 123.
 NUS, “Minutes and Summary of Proceedings, Annual Conference held at Margate,” November-December 1974, pp. 29-30. Document held at NUS Scotland office, Edinburgh.