The furore around Malia Bouattia’s election as the new president of the National Union of Students has yet to die down. Accusations of antisemitism dogged her campaign and continue to do so, with Cambridge University’s union threatening to disaffiliate from the NUS altogether. Bouattia’s defence of her comments are, broadly, that it is Zionism she takes issue with and not Jews. And it is for this reason that she felt the need to describe the University of Birmingham in a blogpost as “something of a Zionist outpost”, followed by the comment that “it also has the largest Jewish Society in the country, whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists”.
The idea that the reason there has been a backlash against these comments is because, as one Guardian writer put it, “Muslims come in for special attention when seeking a public role”, is simply wrong. At no point in an open letter signed by 50 Jewish society presidents asking Bouattia to clarify her comments was her faith mentioned. The notion that it is just an exaggerated response to some badly chosen words, because Bouattia is a Muslim, is an excuse to brush under the carpet serious concerns that Jewish students are airing – including students campaigning to end occupation and promote Palestinian rights.
Bouattia says she has a problem with “Zionist politics”. Zionism, at its core, is the belief in the right of the state of Israel to exist. Whether Bouattia likes it or not, connection to Israel is a key part of Jewish identity for an overwhelming majority of Jews in 21st-century Britain. In nearly every synagogue around the world, on Shabbat and major festivals, Jews pray for the safety of the state of Israel. The latestresearch on British Jewish attitudes towards Israel reports that 93% say Israel forms part of their Jewish identity.
If Bouattia was really serious about engaging with Jewish students she would know that, within the same 90%-plus of Jews who feel connected to Israel as part of their identity, a significant number are not supporters of the current policies of the Israeli government when it comes to the peace process or expansion of settlements. And nowhere does this apply more than to students and younger members of the Jewish community, who are increasingly outspoken on these issues.
Bouattia says she is concerned about liberty, equality and inclusion – but very few Jewish students will feel included in a National Union of Students built in the image of its new president.
She has also talked of “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets”. It is hard to believe that someone as politically engaged as Bouattia has not heard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a seminal antisemitic text, a forgery originating in tsarist Russia that accuses Jews of trying to take over the world by controlling the media. It is an antisemitic trope that circulated throughout Europe in the 20th century, and continues to do so today. And if Bouattia knows about the Protocols, surely it might have crossed her mind that to refer to a Zionist-controlled media might make Jewish students feel extremely uncomfortable?
Perhaps Bouattia does not know that significant numbers of Jews in this country have friends and close family in Israel and therefore she doesn’t realise why saying that “boycott can be misunderstood as the alternative to resistance by the Palestinian people” makes many Jewish students recoil. When she says “non-violent” resistance is not enough, she is endorsing violent resistance against their friends and family. Will Jewish students want to participate in broader student politics knowing the president of their union thinks the potential killing of their friends and family is a legitimate “act of resistance”?
Bouattia is well within her rights to criticise the policies of the Israeli government. Indeed, many British Jews do. She is perfectly entitled to say she is not a Zionist. But it seems she is unable to understand why invoking antisemitic tropes and supporting armed resistance against Israelis causes deep offence. And when she says, “For me to take issue with Zionist politics, is not me taking issue with being Jewish”, she shows a deep lack of understanding of Jewish identity.
If this is the case, then the possibility that the NUS is able to enforce the motion that it passed this week, with Bouattia’s support, committing it to tackling antisemitism, is pretty slim.