The election of a firebrand anti-Zionist to head Britain’s largest student organization has left many Jewish students feeling deeply uncomfortable about their place in campus politics.
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Supporters of Malia Bouattia have hailed the election of the first black, female and secular Muslim as the head of the U.K.’s National Union of Students as a triumph. Many both within and outside the Jewish community, however, are outraged at how a figure with a track record of backing violent resistance and who has referred to the “Zionist-led” media can serve in such a post.
There have been growing calls from students around the country to disaffiliate from the confederation of 600 student unions, theoretically representing some seven million people. Previous holders of the union’s presidency have traditionally gone on to high-profile media or parliamentary careers.
Ahead of Bouattia’s election, the heads of more than 50 Jewish student societies challenged her over previous comments that she saw Birmingham university, with its large Jewish contingent, as “something of a Zionist outpost in British higher education.” “With mainstream Zionist-led media outlets resistance is presented as an act of terrorism,” she said in 2014.
Bouattia has also previously worked with CAGE, a controversial Islamic advocacy group that has been accused of terrorist sympathies, and is a vociferous opponent of Prevent, the government’s anti-extremism strategy. The program has been widely criticized for alienating Muslims, but Bouattia went further, deeming it to be the product of a “Zionist lobby.”
“I never felt unsafe as a Jewish student until yesterday, when the new NUS president was elected,” second-year Cambridge student Gabriel Gendler wrote in a Facebook post that went viral. “I don’t care what you think about the Middle East and I don’t care if you’re a brilliant liberation activist for other groups. Anyone who makes anti-Semitic comments has no place in anti-racist and anti-fascist politics. And if Malia Bouattia can’t listen to the voices of Jewish students then her politics aren’t intersectional at all,” he wrote, referring to the concept that minority groups experience discrimination in an interconnected way.
Although Bouattia said she would keep a low profile until her term officially begins in July, she published an op-ed in The Guardian’s Observer shortly after her election last week in which she made clear that “there is no place for antisemitism in the student movement, or in society.”
“The first thing I did on being elected was to hold a meeting with the Union of Jewish Students, and these meetings are set to continue,” she wrote. The campaigns director of UJS, Russell Langer, said the meeting had taken place at Bouattia’s request some hours after her election, but that nothing was resolved at the 20-minute session.
Langer said that she had promised that their meeting was a first step to rebuild bridges rather than a PR stunt. Regrettably, he said, the fact she had been so keen to publicize the brief talk made it look exactly like the latter. “I haven’t called her an anti-Semite but her rhetoric has flirted with anti-Semitic discourse. She needs to address how she talks about Israel,” he said. “When Jewish students raise legitimate concerns, people assume that it’s a smear campaign.”
It wasn’t Bouattia’s anti-Zionist politics that made working with her challenging, he continued. For instance, while it supported a two-state solution, UJS was committed to fighting any boycott of Israel. “I can work with someone who supports BDS, and disagree, and move on,” Langer said. “But when people blame Prevent on a Zionist lobby? She makes comments and then expects us to ask her to clarify it.”
Bouattia has previously called BDS “problematic” because it was “presented as the non-violent option.”
UJS itself cannot disaffiliate as it has no formal links with the NUS, just a working relationship, but he acknowledged “a lot of anger” from students who wanted to break all ties with the union.
“Disaffiliation is an option but it’s conceding defeat. It means that only people who agree with her stay on. I sincerely hope that she will listen. She has caused a lot of distress.”
Bouattia’s election follows a series of scandals over allegations of anti-Semitism within the British student left. In mid-February, Alex Chalmers, co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, resigned after the body voted to support Israel Apartheid Week, claiming that many members “have some kind of problem with Jews.” The Oxford Jewish Society then went on to release further allegations of harassment of Jews.
Jewish students had begun to feel that they were put through “a significantly higher level of scrutiny” than others, especially regarding their views towards Israel, according to Jake Cohen, a first-year undergraduate in Arts & Sciences at University College London. He predicted that Bouattia’s election would further isolate left-leaning Jewish students from political engagement.
The results of the NUS elections are far from representative of general attitudes on campus, since only an tiny percentage of members participate. Nonetheless, Cohen, an activist with liberal Zionist campaign group Yachad, said the election result was “the final nail in the coffin of me engaging with the Labour party and other left-wing groups on my campus.”
Bouattia does have some Jewish supporters. Lev Taylor, a Warwick University graduate, said that her election was “a good thing for everyone,” describing her as a welcome change from previously passive student leaders willing to support the government line.
“It’s fantastic to have a fighting leadership — I hope she will do what she can to mend bridges with Jewish students and that Jewish students will do the same in return, in good faith.”
As for her comments on Zionism, he dismissed them as “misguided.” “They came from a place of ignorance rather than racism,” he said. “She has been very active in terms of opposing the far right and fascists, although clearly in other areas she’s not on the same page as UJS.”
Much of the controversy, he felt, came from the fact that “a black, Muslim woman made some critical statements on Israel.” “A white guy could have got away with it,” he continued.
Taylor, like other Bouattia supporters, dismissed any suggestion that Zionist Jews also deserved a “safe space” on university campuses.
But Langer argued that most Jews had a connection to Israel, whether or not their views of Zionism jibed with the radical perception of a colonialist ideology. “It’s the responsibility of the president of the NUS to ensure that Jewish students feel comfortable on campus, and the vast majority are Zionist,” he said. “That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be challenged on their opinions; that’s part of being a student.”
Some note with frustration that a key tenet of the liberation politics Bouattia subscribes to is that people get to define their own oppression. The exception to that, it seems, is what exactly constitutes anti-Semitism.
“This lack of understanding of anti-Semitism in itself isn’t unforgiveable but the refusal to listen and be educated on anti-Semitism is,” said Cohen. “This all leads to a place in student politics where Jews are the only minority group that has to justify its accusations of discrimination and ‘prove’ them to be correct.”
“I think currently people feel that if they want to join student politics they have to leave their Zionism at the door and this is unreasonable,” he added.
Taylor, however, dismissed concerns that Bouttia’s election would make Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. “Jews will be more galvanized,” he said. “I met Jewish students at university who never cared about politics until someone criticized Israel, then they became a great defender of Israel, of women’s rights, of gay rights. I don’t buy that this undermines Jewish students. Yes, it’s scary, but not in a way that’s unproductive.”