The Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Kevin Courtney, appeared today at a testy hearing of the House of Commons Education Committee, where he attempted to defend a number of controversial stances that he and his union have taken in relation to antisemitism.
The Committee Chair, Conservative Robert Halfon MP, shifted the conversation to “the very difficult area of antisemitism” and asked about a number of matters of grave concern to the Jewish community.
First, he asked why the NEU has not adopted the International Definition of Antisemitism. He noted that the Definition has been adopted by the British Government, all major political parties and anti-racism organisations, including Campaign Against Antisemitism. He also quoted a Jewish former member of the NEU who has pushed for adoption of the Definition by the union.
Mr Halfon further noted that there is nothing stopping the NEU’s executive from adopting the Definition, and asked: “Why does the NEU think it knows better and why do you as yet refuse to adopt the Definition, and why won’t you adopt it and use it as a starting point to address issues within your membership body?”
Mr Courtney replied that he would like the former member to re-join, and disclosed that he has written to several Jewish members recently, emphasising that “there is definitely a very strong place for them in this union. For people who see Israel as the homeland of a nation, who see it as a refuge of last resort, who see it as a response to the Holocaust, there is a place for people with those views in the union.”
Mr Halfon pressed Mr Courtney specifically on the matter of adoption, however, asking: “As a leadership why not adopt it?” Mr Courtney replied: “That is an option that’s open to us.” Mr Halfon: “Why haven’t you done it?” Mr Courtney responded that “We haven’t even discussed it actually…we are definitely a union that is working very hard against antisemitism, we are organising training against antisemitism,” suggesting that there was no impediment to the NEU adopting the Definition other than that it has not bothered to discuss the matter and apparently has no plans to do so.
Mr Halfon then asked Mr Courtney about the more than 100 Jewish members who have quit the NEU because of their concerns over how it handles antisemitism. “Why do you think they have resigned from the union?” Mr Halfon asked. Mr Courtney replied that he has written to the members, and that he has also addressed the NEU’s National Executive and branch secretaries on the topic.
In this connection, Mr Halfon also asked about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, an antisemitic genocidal terrorist organisation. The conflict inspired numerous demonstrations across Britain over the past two months and a surge in antisemitism, including in schools and on campuses. Mr Courtney replied in respect of the “dispute between Israel and Hamas” that “we started getting involved in those demonstrations. I personally spoke at those demonstrations. And they were about the evictions of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah. Now those evictions…were condemned by the British Government. They were condemned by the United Nations…”
Mr Courtney was interrupted by Mr Halfon who observed that “Jewish members of your union feel that their union support is secondary to their campaigns criticising the State of Israel for one action or another.” Mr Courtney denied this, insisting that “it’s really relevant that the demonstration was about Sheikh Jarrah” before going on to say that “the union put out statements saying that both Israel and Hamas should stop the bombings” and that “when I spoke at the demonstrations, I said that.”
Mr Courtney did not appear to be prepared to accept that the NEU or its officers may be responsible for why so many Jewish members have resigned.
The conversation then turned to a recent controversial series of antisemitism training sessions organised by the Warsaw Ghetto vandal and NEU official, Ewa Jasiewicz. Campaign Against Antisemitism recently revealed that, although Ms Jasiewicz did not lead the sessions herself, she did organise them and they were led by two activists from the far-left fringe Jewish group, Jewdas.
Mr Halfon pointed out that Ms Jasiewicz is “infamous for defacing the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto” and that “Campaign Against Antisemitism has noted that the sessions were led by two activists from a fringe organisation called Jewdas.” He asked Mr Courtney: “Why did you choose a controversial fringe group to do this when you could have used many mainstream Jewish organisations?”
Mr Courtney responded: “I welcome these questions, and I would like an opportunity to talk with you in more detail about them.” In the meantime, he offered a “potted history” of the matter, noting that the NEU allocates staff to work with the union’s various forums, including the black members’ forum in the North West, which requested sessions on racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, including dealing with the topics from a more “intellectual” and historical perspective. He said that “Ewa did a very good job of sourcing the sort of people that that group wanted.”
Pressed on the Warsaw Ghetto vandalism, Mr Courtney insisted that Ms Jasiewicz “didn’t teach about it” and that “she [merely] sourced the people”.
Mr Courtney thus confirmed that, despite Ms Jasiewicz’s appalling history in relation to antisemitism, it was she who was empowered to invite the fringe activists to deliver antisemitism training.
Mr Courtney also disclosed, regarding the vandalism, that “it was completely wrong. We didn’t know about it when we employed her. We didn’t know about it until 2018. When we did know about it, we met with her immediately at a very senior level in the union, with her union rep, we discussed the fact that that action was absolutely wrong, that defacing a Holocaust memorial was wrong, that drawing an equivalency between the Israeli Government and the Nazis was wrong. We went through with her that we weren’t saying those things because we thought they might cause bad publicity or because they were at variance with the [International] Definition but because we believed them to be wrong in absolute terms. They [the actions] were wrong. We discussed that with her.” He added: “She had apologised for them before that time. She repeated that apology at that moment. And I believe in redemption. She has apologised for those actions and they were wrong.”
Mr Halfon proceeded then to ask about the recent antisemitism-infested anti-Israel rallies. Mr Halfon noted that many of these rallies, including at least one which Mr Courtney addressed, featured antisemitic placards. “You failed to condemn them yet you spoke at that rally,” Mr Halfon observed, adding that another NEU official, Louise Regan, had also spoken at a rally in Nottingham at which another speaker had openly supported Hamas and spoke of “resistance by any means necessary”. Ms Regan was suspended by the Labour Party last year over a motion of support for Jeremy Corbyn at the Nottingham East Constituency Labour Party, which she chairs, and has reportedly been reinstated in recent weeks.
“Do you believe it is appropriate for you to speak at rallies with antisemitic placards and chants?” Mr Halfon asked.
Mr Courtney declared: “I condemn all acts of antisemitism”. He also insisted that antisemitic placards were not everywhere, and that the “vast majority of placards at that demonstration were not antisemitic.” He also emphasised that “there were hundreds my members of my union at those demonstrations,” singling out “young Muslim members of my union” in particular as having participated. He went on to say that “at the demonstration, I made a point of saying that we are all here in our diversity against all forms of racism, against all forms of Islamophobia, and against all forms of antisemitism. That line from my speech was the most applauded line of my speech.” He declared that “I’m proud of speaking at the demonstration. All three of the demonstrations that I spoke at.”
Mr Courtney thus justified his appearances at antisemitism-infested rallies while insisting that he condemns “all forms of racism, against all forms of Islamophobia, and against all forms of antisemitism”.
Mr Halfon ended his questioning by asking: “Do you feel that the NEU is safe for Jewish people, because I can’t see it from where I’m sitting?” He added that it seemed that “Jews don’t count” at the NEU, where there appears to be a “hostile environment” for Jewish people.
Mr Courtney, by this point aggravated, replied that “Jewish people absolutely count in our union. And we want those 100 people to re-join. There are many more Jewish people who haven’t left our union, because they see that we are a union committed to opposing all forms of racism, and Islamophobia, including Islamophobia [sic], including antisemitism.”
Mr Halfon interjected: “Except when it comes to antisemitism, when you turn a blind eye.”
Mr Courtney’s temper appeared to flare as he responded: “That is absolutely untrue. That is a disgraceful slur on me and my union.”
It is notable that, throughout the proceedings, Mr Courtney used the familiar refrain of speaking of antisemitism almost exclusively alongside “Islamophobia” and “all forms of racism”, rather than exclusively about anti-Jewish racism, even though that was the topic that he was being asked about.
Having concluded his questioning, Mr Halfon then yielded to his committee colleague, Ian Mearns, the Labour MP for Gateshead, who opened by noting that he did not have advance warning of Mr Halfon’s line of questioning and said: “Personally I think it’s regrettable what you’ve done.” It is not clear why Mr Mearns thinks that asking the Joint General Secretary of a controversial union about how it is addressing the mass resignation of Jewish members is a regrettable line of questioning.
Mr Halfon referred to research by Campaign Against Antisemitism over the course of his questioning of Mr Courtney.
A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “We commend Robert Halfon MP for his robust examination of Mr Courtney. It is not often that the leadership of a controversial union is held to account, and it was clear from Mr Courtney’s answers that he and his union see no shortcomings in their conduct in relation to antisemitism and the Jewish community, despite the mass resignation of Jewish NEU members.
“While Mr Courtney professes his opposition to antisemitism, he nevertheless addressed rallies featuring antisemitic placards, allowed the Warsaw Ghetto vandal to invite fringe figures to deliver antisemitism training to his members, will not commit to adopting the International Definition of Antisemitism, and, above all, has presided over a union that has lost a significant portion of its Jewish membership, for which he apparently offers no apology.
“The Jewish community has long had concerns about the NEU, and Mr Courtney’s performance today showed him to be unapologetic and without any kind of plan to take robust action.”