There is no doubt that press criticism of the NUS as out-of-touch and politically radical is often unfair, and that the response to the election of Malia Bouattia as NUS President has at times played into narratives which are both racist and Islamophobic. But distinct from this criticism, there are clear and serious concerns voiced by Jewish students, which in the months since her election Bouattia has neither listened to nor addressed.
It is unacceptable to describe the University of Birmingham, home to the largest Jewish society in the country, as a ‘Zionist outpost’, and the term ‘Zionist-led media’ is a clear invocation of anti-semitic tropes. Bouattia recently made the headlines once again when, as a member of NUS’s National Executive Council (NEC), she cast the deciding vote to deny Jewish students a say in their own representative on the organisation’s internal Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism committee.
These actions have contributed to a culture in which Jewish students feel intimidated and excluded, in which rhetoric such as Bouattia’s is both commonly used and accepted. When I speak to Jewish friends in and out of student politics, they describe the feeling following Bouattia’s election as overwhelmingly one of frustration and anger. On many university campuses, this frustration has been channelled into campaigns to disaffiliate from NUS; in some it has even extended to a fear, on returning this September, of engaging with political structures in students’ unions and NUS.
Bouattia has consistently refused to accept that her comments were anti-semitic, nor has she apologised for them, and her interview in The Guardian this week provoked anger once again. Those who believed her comments to be anti-semitic had simply ‘misinterpreted’ and ‘misunderstood’. Since 2014, NUS has held a policy supporting the full implementation of the Macpherson recommendations. This includes the principle that when a person believes they have been subject to racial abuse, this perception must be respected even if it is not upheld through investigation.
In other words, those who experience oppression reserve the right to define what that oppression looks like. Bouattia rightly accepts this principle for other forms of oppression but, as applied to Jewish students, several months on she still refuses to accept why her remarks caused offence.
This hypocrisy has led to a widespread feeling that Jewish students’ concerns are treated as secondary – one person I spoke to described it bluntly, as “one rule for the Jews, another for everyone else”. As leader of the UK’s student movement, Bouattia’s refusal to listen to or address these concerns is unacceptable. Allegations made by Jewish students must be addressed as any other form of intimidation or abuse would be, and in a context of rising incidences of anti-semitic hate crime, what is needed is not excuses, but apology and a willingness to act.
It is both naïve and dangerous to dismiss allegations of anti-semitism within the student movement. Anti-semitism is not an offence fabricated by the press to unfairly demonise political activists. It is the lived experience of the 8,500 Jewish students in the UK who themselves feel demonised and excluded by student leaders who refuse to listen to their concerns. These concerns are serious and legitimate, and if NUS is to be a truly progressive force for change, they must be addressed.