Britain’s National Union of Students on Tuesday elected as its new president a pro-Palestinian activist who has in the past publicly advocated for violence against Israelis and refused to condemn the Islamic State group.
Malia Bouattia, a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement activist and the first black Muslim woman to helm the organization, will take office in September.
In a 2011 article, the University of Birmingham graduate called her alma mater “something of a Zionist outpost in British higher education,” and, in a 2014 speech, went as far as to suggest that British student activists should “take orders” from Palestinian terrorists.
In the speech, Bouattia expressed concern that “the notion of resistance has been perhaps washed out of our understanding of how colonized people will obtain their physical emancipation.”
“With mainstream Zionist-led media outlets — because once again we’re dealing with the population of the global south — resistance is presented as an act of terrorism, but instead of us remembering that this has always been the case throughout struggles against white supremacy, it’s become an accepted discourse amongst too many.”
Bouattia said it was a “very strange contradiction” to support non-violence and the liberation of the Palestinians.
“Internalized Islamophobia has also enabled our obsession with convincing non-Muslims of our non-violent and peaceful nature, so that we’re taking things a step further and dangerously condemning the resistance, branding groups and individuals as terrorists to dissociate from them, but at the same time supporting their liberation which is a very strange contradiction,” she said.
The activist also said it was “problematic” to view boycott efforts as an alternative to “resistance.”
“To consider that Palestine will be free only be means of fundraising, non-violent protest and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is problematic,” she said, adding that while she supports BDS, it could be “misunderstood as the alternative to resistance by the Palestinian people.”
She also appeared to encourage engaging with Palestinian terrorists, raising the possibility of “taking orders” to show solidarity.
“Finally I would just like to say that we also need to remember the Palestinians on the ground… who are actively sustaining the fight and the resistance against occupation, and perhaps there’s a need to actively engage with those people and to provide the platform in which to listen to those realities and take orders if we are really to show some form of solidarity,” she said.
Also in 2014, Bouattia refused to support a resolution condemning the Islamic State, arguing it would stoke Islamophobia.
“We recognize that condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia,” she said at the time, according to British news reports.
Some 57 Jewish student leaders last week penned an open letter to Bouattia voicing worry that she is “creating an element of suspicion towards Jewish students on campus.”
It also pointed to a statement Bouattia made linking the UK Prevent counter-terror policy to “all manner of Zionist and neo-con lobbies,” and asked her to clarify her ties to the to Muslim Public Affairs Committee which in 2013 wrote on its Facebook page: “Take your holocaust, roll it nice and tight and shove it up your (be creative)!”
“It seems I have been misrepresented. I am extremely uncomfortable with insinuations of anti-Semitism,” she said in response. “I want to be clear that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish.”
“In fact, Zionist politics are held by people from a variety of different faiths, as are anti-Zionist politics,” she added.
The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) said Wednesday that it’s “proud of its long history and long standing positive relationship with the National Union of Students. Now that Malia Bouattia has been elected president, we hope that that relationship will be able to continue.”
“There will, however, still be many Jewish students who have not been satisfied with Malia’s response so far to the concerns raised by Jewish students over the last few weeks. Now, knowing the result of the election, these questions still need to be answered,” UJS said.
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, expressed concern over Bouattia’s election, and urged her to clarity her comments.
“We are deeply concerned by the failure of new NUS president Malia Bouattia to satisfactorily clarify past remarks and associations,” Arkush said. “There can be no excuse for associating with organisations who have a history of antisemitism, equivocating on terrorism or considering Jewish societies on campus as ‘a challenge’.
He added: “Jewish students have as much right to feel safe on campus as anyone else, and as a president tasked with representing the welfare and concerns of all students, Ms Bouattia must live up to her responsibility and take the concerns of Jewish students seriously. Ms Bouattia claims she will fight all forms of racism including antisemitism, and this should also include exceptional and discriminatory attacks on the right of Jews to self-determination, or terrorism directed against Jews in Israel or abroad. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Union of Jewish Students and demand that our students are enabled to study hard and enjoy campus life, without any fear or intimidation.”