In the run-up to the election of Malia Bouattia as President of the National Union of Students last week, delegates to the union’s annual conference heard a great deal about her views. They heard that she has called Birmingham University a “Zionist outpost in higher education” because it has “the largest Jsoc [Jewish student society] in the country.” She has railed against “Zionist-led media outlets”. She has defended Palestinian terrorism as “resistance”. She has led opposition to the union condemning ISIS.
Yet the delegates at the National Union of Students Conference, ignored the warnings and elected Bouattia anyway, on behalf of the more than two million students across the United Kingdom whom the delegates supposedly represent. As if to reinforce the point that the union was in the grip of utterly perverse, unrepresentative student politicians, shortly before electing Bouattia, the delegates debated whether to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, with fierce applause for the students who condemned Holocaust Memorial Day for not being ‘inclusive’ enough.
Disturbed by Bouattia’s election, Campaign Against Antisemitism, backed by over 1,500 people who signed our open letter, called on her to retract her comments, condemn terrorism and endorse her union’s policy on antisemitism. Today she answered us and the many students’ unions up and down the country who have been threatening to disaffiliate from the National Union of Students.
Writing in today’s Guardian, Bouattia was clear as mud. When she said that the media was “Zionist-led” she says she meant that the media just favoured Zionism. She did not address her comments about the University of Birmingham’s Jewish society, nor did she explain away her defence of despicable acts by proscribed Palestinian terrorist groups as “resistance”. She claimed that her opposition to condemning ISIS was a principled stand against “Islamophobia” and that her campaign against the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy is simply her way of defending “civil liberties”.
Even if we accept her excuses, we still do not have an answer why she sees a large student Jewish society as problematic, or why she spoke in defence of Palestinian terrorist groups which espouse the most antisemitic ideology imaginable.
In her article, Bouattia blames the entire controversy on other people misunderstanding her, offers to reword her offensive statements instead of admitting their offensive nature and ignores some of the most important concerns altogether. But this brazen self-justification pales besides her most brazen act of all: in defending herself, she decided to smear her critics as being motivated by her gender and racial and religious background. Others in the new cohort of union officers have claimed the same. When Jews and non-Jews alike call you an antisemite, is it not doubly antisemitic to ignore their concerns whilst counterclaiming sexism, Islamophobia and racism?
The outgoing Presidents of the National Union of Students and the Union of Jewish Students have urged their supporters to “fight for what you believe in” from within the National Union of Students, and not to talk of disaffiliating. But when the National Union of Students is in the vice-like grip of activists who unabashedly tolerate antisemitism and defend terrorism, it is not surprising that many prominent students’ unions are proposing motions to disaffiliate.
The National Union of Students is supposed to represent and unify students. This week it has done the opposite.