Students in Britain have reacted angrily as a student politician widely denounced as anti-Semitic was elected president of the UK National Union of Students (NUS).
Malia Bouattia was elected president today at the NUS annual conference in Brighton, defeating the incumbent, who was running for re-election. According to the BBC, Bouattia will be the first black Muslim president of the NUS.
Concerns over Bouattia’s attitude towards Jewish students reached prominence last week when presidents of university Jewish societies published an open letter titled “Questions that need to be answered,” to which hundreds of names have since been added. The letter alluded to an article that Bouattia co-wrote in 2011 that called the University of Birmingham a “Zionist outpost,” and said that the one of the challenges the university faces is that the school contains “the largest [Jewish society] in the country.” Bouattia’s controversial remarks led the students to ask, “Why do you see a large Jewish Society as a problem?”
Bouattia responded to the letter by accusing its authors of using her “faith and political views… as an opportunity to accuse [her] of anti-Semitism,” and protested that her “work and dedication to liberation, equality and inclusion” proves otherwise.
This work is itself a matter of controversy, as Bouattia has been widely accused of peddling conspiracy theories in her capacity as the NUS Black Students’ Officer. She is on record blaming the “Zionist lobby” for the British government’s “Prevent” anti-radicalization strategy. She has also been filmed accusing “Zionist-led media” of oppressing the global south. In the same video, subsequently removed from YouTube, she called on Muslims to support violent Palestinian “resistance” and dismissed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as “strengthening the colonial project.”
Bouattia previously provoked national controversy in late 2014 when she opposed a resolution to condemn ISIS because “condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia.” The union’s subsequent rejection of the motion and endorsement of the anti-Israel boycott movement was later criticized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The UK Union of Jewish Students released a conciliatory statement in which it expressed hope that its longstanding relationship with the NUS would continue. Noting that the NUS had just adopted a resolution committing itself to tackle anti-Semitism and had endorsed the European Union’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which covers “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” the UJS stated that it “look[ed] forward to Malia leading an NUS” that would honor this commitment.
Others struck a decidedly more strident tone. The youth branch of the Liberal Democrat Party declared itself “appalled” by Bouattia’s election, explicitly accusing her of “demoniz[ing] Jewish students and inflam[ing] the already incredibly disturbing antisemitic feeling on campuses.” It also charged the NUS with “endors[ing]…the antisemitism which so many Jewish students now endure.” Former NUS president Wes Streeting, now a Labour MP, tweeted that “NUS is lost.”
The rest of the conference was not without controversy. One delegate received applause for arguing against commemorating the Holocaust. According to The Tab, a student tabloid, “some members of the conference were left in tears, because of the loud screaming which they found triggering.”
[Photo: NUS / YouTube]