Following the cancellation of a number of on-campus events connected to ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’, and the criticism this has sparked from a number of academics, the ways in which institutions can deal with anti-Semitism within the student movement has reared its head once again.
Tempting as it is to attribute any problems to the divisive nature of ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ however, it is clear that the issue runs much deeper.
Last weekend, the current National Union of Students (NUS) president, Malia Bouattia, spoke at a conference in London hosted by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) in partnership with Friends of al-Aqsa, appearing alongside the group’s founder, Ismail Patel.
A driving force behind divisive pro-Palestinian activism on UK university campuses, Friends of al-Aqsa has published writers with a history of anti-Semitic views, such as Khalid Amayreh, while Patel has stated that: “Hamas is no terrorist organisation…we salute Hamas for standing up to Israel”.
That an organisation like Friends of al-Aqsa is considered a suitable partner by FOSIS highlights how such views are becoming a major part of the student movement. Bouattia’s appearance at the conference, meanwhile, will exacerbate concerns raised after an internal NUS inquiry into accusations of anti-Semitism concluded she had made comments that “could be reasonably capable of being interpreted as anti-Semitic”.
The comments “capable of being interpreted as anti-Semitic” raised by the report also shed further light on the worldview of too many within organised student political debate and activism. Made by Bouattia at SOAS last year, they saw her describe the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy, Prevent, as being fuelled by “Zionist and Neo-Con lobbies”.
The suggestion that Prevent, hated by Bouattia and her allies, is being driven by Jewish and Israeli interests is an updated axiom of age-old anti-Jewish paranoia, while her chosen phraseology reflects that found on neo-Nazi websites and 9/11 ‘truther’ forums, where ‘neo-cons’ and ‘Zionists’ are blamed for the Iraq war or attack on the twin towers.
The conflation of a hated strategy with a hated ideology regardless of factual basis or accuracy penetrates the student movement beyond Bouattia as well, with the NUS campaign against Prevent working with others who use such language, including the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), which wrote a 2016 pamphlet about “Challenging the Zionist Prevent agenda”.
Bouattia also spoke at an IHRC conference in 2015, with the group sharing her speech on Facebook, while an NUS Black Students’ Campaign booklet attacking Prevent which was edited by Bouattia recommended the IHRC as a contact for activists looking to undermine the strategy. In 2007, the IHRC published an article claiming the two main UK political parties were “indebted to Jewish financiers with Zionist leanings”.
All this goes to show the moral bankruptcy of too much of the modern student movement when it comes to racism, with platitudes about being “at the forefront of tackling racism and fascism in all its forms” attributed to Bouattia in response to a Guardian feature on campus anti-Semitism hollow in the face of her repeated association with groups like the Friends of al-Aqsa or IHRC.
Unfortunately, I think the current situation in the student movement is close to being beyond repair. It is a sad state of affairs when students are no longer surprised about stories about anti-Semitism within the NUS movement, and across the UK there is a growing number of students that do not accept the NUS represents them.
Tom Harwood, a NUS delegate from Durham University who swept to national attention after running an atypical campaign last year told me that: “The NUS needs to wake up and realise that if it wants to have any credibility as a student organisation it must speak for all students, not relentlessly pursue one narrow extreme political agenda.”
Last year we saw campaigns to disaffiliate from the NUS at a number of universities. Whilst these were mostly unsuccessful, the very fact they took place suggest the tide of public opinion may be turning, and that the student movement needs to radically rethink its current trajectory if it is to win back the support of those students which have lost faith.