|Volume 46 Number 13, May 14, 2016||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
On April 20, the National Union of Students (NUS) elected Malia Bouattia as its new president. Originally from Algeria, she is both the first black woman and the first Muslim to be elected NUS president, following her position as the Black Students' Officer.
Both before and after her election, allegations have been circulating to discredit Bouattia and associate her with anti-Semitism and extremism. Following the vote, campaigns began at various student unions (Oxford, Manchester, York, Exeter, Cambridge and others) to disaffiliate from the NUS. The pitch of the campaign against Bouattia reached the level where she appeared on news programmes and in the press to defend herself.
Accusations have focused on a joint post she made on the blog of the LSE Palestine Society in March 2011, which said: "The University of Birmingham is something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education. It also has the largest JSoc [Jewish student society] in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists." It is claimed this reveals her anti-Semitism, with "Zionism" being conflated with "Judaism", a reading that does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the blog post was written at the time that the society mentioned was taking part in a "Israel Awareness Week", held in opposition to Israel Apartheid Week, and it is clear that context was political, not religious or otherwise. Writing in the Guardian, Bouattia said:
"I want to be clear, again, that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is in no way me taking issue with being Jewish. In fact, Zionist politics are held by people from a variety of different backgrounds and faiths. For me it has been, and will always be, a political argument, not one of faith or ethnic identity. Zionism, religion and ethnicity must not be seen as one and the same."
A letter to the Independent signed by a group of mainly Jewish signatories supported her:
"Her accusers have cited her negative comment about the University of Birmingham as 'a Zionist outpost', which is a political category like any other - and so irrelevant to religion or anti-Semitism. Indeed, the false equation 'Jewish=Zionist' comes from Israel's supporters, not from the Palestine solidarity movement."
A group of former Jewish students and NUS representatives wrote a letter to the Jewish Chronicle saying they are "horrified at the Islamophobic campaign being waged against her, amidst opportunistic and false charges of anti-Semitism".
It further asserted that she opposed an NUS motion condemning ISIS. This is again a complete misrepresentation. What Bouattia in fact objected to was the ambiguous wording of the original motion. She supported an alternative motion, as she explained in an interview on Channel 4 News:
"The motion had problematic wording which blurred the lines between condemning ISIS and holding all Muslims accountable for its actions. I spoke against the motion promising to bring another to the national executive which was clear in its condemnation of the group and in its solidarity to the Kurdish people and it was voted through unanimously."
It is a matter of fact that Bouattia has been involved in various campaigns relating to opposition of racism and British colonial legacy. For example, she has been actively part of the "Why Is My Curriculum White?" campaign. It is entirely consistent with this that she has been involved in the Palestine solidarity movement, upholding the right to be of the Palestinian people, as well as defending the rights of Muslims in Britain, who are facing an unprecedented level of targeting at this time. She has therefore been a vocal critic of the government's "Prevent" programme, for which she has also come under attack.
The accusations came in the wake of similar allegations against members of the Oxford University Labour Club, who came under attack after voting to support Israel Apartheid Week. A further so-called crisis is being fostered in the Labour Party over the issue of alleged anti-Semitism, with attempts to split the party.
It is no coincidence that all of these allegations are happening at once. It has been pointed out that much of this is a desperate attempt by the right of the Labour Party to isolate Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. However, it goes beyond the Labour Party. An atmosphere of hysteria is being generated by a generalised campaign to discredit and sow division amongst the progressive forces and movements that have been gathering momentum and making various breakthroughs as the established neo-liberal consensus has gone into crisis. The Big Lie technique is in operation to create an impression that there is a problem of anti-Semitism on the "left", and that the left are sympathetic to extremism and terrorism. The aim is to shore up neo-liberalism as representing the reasonable centre in politics by raising the spectre of the extremes, through creating a picture of the "hard left" and equating it with the "hard right".
This is to cover the reality that this so-called centre is itself in essence of the extreme right, where everything is put in the service of the most powerful monopolies. The burden of the economic crisis is shifted onto the working population through austerity measures and rights are not recognised. People are denied a say in these most important matters that affect their lives, such as the direction of the economy, while political problems are made problems of law and order. Police are given further powers to act with impunity under the spurious theory of balancing rights against security, as opposed to the modern conception that security lies in the defence of the rights of all. Legislation is passed that violates the right to conscience and attempts to establish an official set of "British values" around the notion that all should line up behind national-chauvinistic aims, aims which are increasingly pursued through intervention and war.
It is exactly this that is being increasingly questioned and organised against, for an alternative. As Bouattia said: "My election hasn't taken place in a vacuum. Up and down this country students are restless and angry, tired of a system that sees education as nothing more than a commodity, one that throws us into a lifetime of unfairness, injustice and crippling debt."