The new leader of Britain’s National Union of Students, who two years ago spoke out passionately in support of violent Palestinian “resistance,” insisted it should not be considered terrorism and criticized the notion that “Palestine” could be freed by nonviolent action alone, has penned an op-ed in which she claimed she is not a racist or an anti-Semite, but made no effort to address her defense of Palestinian violence.
Amid calls by Jewish groups for Malia Bouattia to dissociate herself from previous rhetoric, and with several British student groups seeking to separate themselves from the National Union following her election, Bouattia claimed in an op-ed for the Guardian on Sunday that she has “always been a strong campaigner against racism and fascism in all its forms.” She also wrote that “to take issue” with Zionist politics did not constitute her “taking issue with being Jewish.”
“There is no place for antisemitism in the student movement, or in society,” declared Bouattia, the first black woman and the first Muslim to be elected NUS head. “If any of my previous discourse has been interpreted otherwise, such as comments I once made about Zionism within the media, I will revise it to ensure there is no room for confusion,” she promised.
“I was being critical of media outlets that unquestioningly support Israel’s actions and maltreatment of Palestinians, I was not talking about the media as a whole, or repeating despicable antisemitic prejudice. The first thing I did on being elected was to hold a meeting with the Union of Jewish Students, and these meetings are set to continue,” she wrote.
However, while claiming that “the accusations being directed at me this week are deeply troubling and false,” she also stressed that “my political ideologies and beliefs remain unchanged” and did not repudiate or backtrack from previous remarks in which she strongly supported Palestinian violence and insisted it did not constitute terrorism.
The op-ed, entitled “I’m the new NUS president – and no, I’m not an antisemitic Isis sympathiser,” itself contained a link to incendiary remarks encouraging Palestinian violence and rejecting the definition of such violence as terrorism, which she delivered in September 2014 at a conference on “Gaza and the Palestinian Revolution.”
In that address, Bouattia protested that in “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets… resistance is presented as an act of terrorism” and complained that this has “become an accepted discourse amongst too many.”
Also 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.”
Bouattia said it was a “very strange contradiction” to support nonviolence 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, she was concerned that 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.
Bouattia, who was elected last week to lead the union, is to take office in September.
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.”
The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) said last Wednesday that it was “proud of its long history and long standing positive relationship with the National Union of Students.” But, it noted, there will “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.
Other university student groups have expressed concern over Bouattia’s election, and students from at least 10 institutions are seeking 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.
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, last week also expressed concern over Bouattia’s election and urged her to clarity her comments and positions.
“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.”
The NUS is a confederation of some 600 UK students’ unions, representing over 95% of all British higher and further education unions. It claims to speak for seven million British students.