The umbrella organization of British Jewish students on Friday called on the newly elected leader of Britain’s National Union of Students to disassociate herself from her previous allegedly anti-Semitic remarks.
Malia Bouattia, an activist in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, has in the past publicly advocated for Palestinian violence against Israelis, and refused to condemn the Islamic State group.
She was elected the president of the NUS on Tuesday, and will become the first black Muslim leader of the student group when she takes the helm of the inter-university organization in September.
Union of Jewish Students campaign director Russell Langer said Wednesday that although Bouattia had denied her remarks were anti-Semitic, she must go further to condemn her previous comments, including one in which she called Birmingham University “something of a Zionist outpost.”
“Malia needs to go further to redress the concerns that were put to her,” Langer said, according to the Guardian.
“She needs to properly distance herself from her past rhetoric, issue sincere apologies and also commit to avoiding any flirtation with anti-Semitic stereotypes in the future. Without these steps, many Jewish students will feel that they are unable to engage with an NUS under her leadership.”
Other university groups have also expressed concern with Bouattia’s election, and students from at least 10 institutions have sought to separate from the national student body.
According to British news reports, a series of decisions taken by the union’s national conference in Brighton this week prompted students from Durham, Edinburgh, Westminster, Aberystwyth, Manchester, York, Exeter, London South Bank, Oxford and Cambridge universities to consider cutting ties with the NUS through a referendum vote on their campuses.
If efforts to sever ties with the NUS are successful, the organization could lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in membership fees and commercial revenues, throwing the national student union into a funding crisis.
In 2011, Bouattia wrote an article in which she described her alma mater as “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.
On Wednesday, 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.