NUS president’s dangerously flawed view of anti-Semitism

In her recent Guardian piece (I’m the new NUS president – and no, I’m not an anti-Semitic Isis sympathiser), Malia Bouattia sought to draw a line under recent allegations. She claims to have always been a “strong campaigner against racism and fascism in all its forms” and says there is “no place for anti-Semitism in the student movement, or in society”. These are nice sentiments, but she will probably do little to dispel the deep concerns already expressed about her appointment. Part of the problem is that she has an extremely flawed understanding of anti-Semitism.

No doubt, she is capable of recognising its most obvious manifestations, when anti-Jewish hatred comes dressed in swastikas, skullcaps and jackboots. But what preceded the death camps, the ghettos and the yellow stars were the conspiracy theories about “malevolent” Jewish power, and pernicious allegations of Jewish control. They culminated in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery purporting to reveal a template for Jewish world domination. Demonisation and discrimination were the precursors.

When Malia claims that there are “Zionist led media outlets” in the UK, that Birmingham University is a “Zionist outpost in British higher education” or that the Prevent policy is fuelled by “all manner of Zionist and neo-con lobbies”, she is invoking the same sinister and incendiary language found in the Protocols. If she cannot see why Jewish (and other) students are so aghast at her language, she needs cultural retraining.

Yet for Malia, critiquing the “Zionist control of the media” is akin to being “critical of media outlets that unquestioningly support Israel’s actions and maltreatment of Palestinians”. This is highly questionable on two grounds. It is firstly rare for media outlets to support unquestioningly any country’s foreign policies, including Israel’s.

The BBC, the most influential shaper of public opinion in this country, is quite obviously no right wing, neo-conservative version of Fox News. Similarly, the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, the FT and the Mirror have rarely given Israel a free pass. Deep criticisms of Israel abound in these, and other, publications.

Certainly, most media outlets do accept Israel’s right to exist in peace with its neighbours. But if that is the issue, it is surely one for Ms Bouattia, not the media. She needs to ask why it is fine to have dozens of Muslim and Arab states but not a single Jewish one.

In any case, she has completely misunderstood what she claims to be talking about. Zionism is simply a movement for Jewish national self determination and cultural renaissance. It recognises that Jews are a nation like any other, and one which seeks the same rights as any other recognised group.

If Bouattia wants to take issue with modern Israeli politics, the occupation or settlement policies, she is naturally free to do so. But this is not criticising Zionism per se. Indeed even the most slender research would reveal that mainstream Zionists have always welcomed co-existence with Israel’s Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians. Most Israelis and Zionists support two states for two peoples and full civic equality for the Jewish state’s Arab population.

Malia claims that “Zionism, religion and ethnicity must not be seen as one and the same.” Again, this is ignorant for Zionism is intrinsic to Jewish identity and draws on numerous ancient religious and historical sources. Almost all Jews around the world feel a deep connection to Israel and express it in various ways.

One wonders here whether she should be trying to define the identity of another ethnic group. Would she extend the same licence to those seeking a re-definition of Muslims, black people or any other ethnic group? No doubt she would resent such interference as a form of “white imperialism”. So why the double standard?

Similarly it is fairly disingenuous of her to distance Zionism from Jewishness by observing that “Zionist politics are held by people from a variety of different backgrounds and faiths”. People from many backgrounds supported the American Civil Rights campaign during the turbulent years of the 1960s. But attacks on the civil rights movement struck most forcefully at black Americans because it was most deeply embedded in their collective consciousness. They were overwhelmingly its primary beneficiaries and had most to lose from its failure. The same is true of Zionism for the Jews.

If Ms Bouattia had wanted to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, she could have offered constructive proposals, such as bringing their student representative together on campus or building links with Palestinian moderates in the territories.

But instead she has suggested that Palestinian justice can only be built through violent “resistance” rather than “peace talks” and “non-violent protest”. For an NUS president to endorse terrorism is appalling enough. But if she welcomes the murder and maiming of Israeli Jews, she can hardly be surprised if Jewish students here turn against her.

Her article offered no real statements of regret for past comments. In essence, her “political ideologies and beliefs remain unchanged”.

If so, one can only predict that the clamour of opposition to her will continue unabated.

About the Author
Jeremy is an author and the Director of B'nai Brith UK's Bureau of International Affairs
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