The president of the University of St Andrews Jewish Society, Kathryn Rose, has signed an open letter questioning the actions of Malia Bouattia, the new president of the National Union of Students (NUS) over allegations of anti-Semitism. The letter states that many presidents of Jewish societies are “extremely concerned by [Ms Bouattia’s] past rhetoric.”
The letter also cites an article Ms Bouattia wrote in 2011 in which she described the University of Birmingham as a “Zionist outpost” and when describing the challenges she faced in campaigning, named the fact that the University had the “largest [Jewish society] in the country” as a challenge.
“There are roughly 8,500 Jewish students in the UK which is 0.12% of the seven million students that are represented by NUS. We are shocked that someone who is seeking to represent this organisation could possibly see a large Jewish student population as a challenge and not something to be welcomed,” the letter continues.
Going on, it says, “Our question for you is clear: why do you see a large Jewish Society as a problem?
“We fear that comments such as these will only hamper the amazing interfaith relations present on campuses across the country. Describing large Jewish societies as a challenge is the politics of division and not solidarity which should be the case.”
The letter also questions why Ms Bouattia has previously stated that the government’s anti-terrorism “Prevent” strategy, which has been accused of Islamophobia, as being the result of the “Zionist lobby.”
The letter continues, stating, “Lastly we are concerned by your relationship with Raza Nadim and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPACUK). MPACUK have been no-platformed by NUS since 2004 after publishing material on its website promoting the idea of a worldwide Zionist conspiracy, including the reproduction of articles originally published on neo-Nazi and Holocaust denial websites.
“MPACUK even posted ‘Take your Holocaust, roll it nice and tight and shove it up your (be creative)!’ on their Facebook page in 2013. “We were also worried to see that MPACUK spokesperson, Raza Nadim, used his public Facebook profile (which is almost completely devoted to MPACUK) to endorse your bid to become President of NUS. We were hoping that this was something that you would distance yourself from but the opposite happened when you replied ‘Thank you.’
“As representatives of Jewish students across the UK, we call on you to clarify your relationship with MPACUK and its spokesperson Raza Nadim. If you are elected as NUS President, will you continue to interact with an organisation NUS has no-platformed due to antisemitism?
“The answers to the questions raised in this letter are vital to our understanding of your approach to Jewish students and Jewish societies, and your commitment to creating cohesive campus communities if elected NUS President.”
The letter has so far been signed by 57 chairs and presidents of UK university Jewish societies.
Speaking to The Saint, Ms Rose explained why she had signed the letter.
“St Andrews isn’t a part of NUS so what happens within NUS doesn’t directly affect us. However, I recognise that it is something which does affect the majority of Jewish students in the UK and I wanted to show solidarity with them, to show that I support their interests.
“The President of NUS exists to represent students from all backgrounds. While Jewish students may only be a small minority, the fact that Malia has made these comments in the past is worrying as it implies that if elected, she will not be fully representative.
“I agree with my fellow Jewish Society Presidents around the country in their questioning of her past rhetoric; they are [asking] questions that needed answering appropriately.”
Ms Rose also explained that much of her objection came from what she saw as Ms Bouattia’s conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
While recognising the right of people to oppose the political ideology of Zionism, Ms Rose expressed a concern that such opposition has often devolved into anti-Semitism, making many Jewish students feel “unsafe.” “The NUS and its President must therefore ensure that the students they represent are not being targeted for the wrong reasons, and that no student is made to feel unsafe on campus,” she continued.
Going on, Ms Rose said that, “The fact that Malia specifically called the Jewish Society at Birmingham (the largest in the country) a challenge is particularly worrying, as it directly causes Jewish students to be extremely concerned about their safety and position on campus and it attacks them simply for their religious identity.
“Whilst it is true that Israel forms part of the identity of many Jewish students, it is important to recognise that this is not the case for all and should not be assumed as such. What Malia has done here is both offensive and wrong and has caused many students to be concerned about what may happen if she is elected President.”
Despite expressing these concerns, Ms Rose added that she did not believe that they extended to St Andrews, which she described as “one of the safest universities in the country” for Jewish students.
“I’ve seen my friends at other universities dealing with serious issues of anti-Semitism where they have been attacked both verbally and physically.
“When I look at the situations at other universities I feel particularly fortunate to be somewhere where I feel so comfortable to be openly Jewish and proud.”
Ms Rose also went on to explain that she believes anti-Semitism is an increasing problem in society, “There are many places where Jewish people cannot openly express their religion and this is something which is particularly worrying. Anti-Semitism is a form of racism, and racism is not acceptable. I think the main way to combat anti-Semitism is education: teaching people that their comments and actions are in fact racist. A further distinction that must be made is between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
“Although Israel is a part of the identity of many Jews, it is important to recognise that the two are separate: not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews, however it happens far too often that Israel is used to attack Jews. It is important to engage with the political issues, and this involves discussion, criticism and learning the facts, as very often the media does not accurately portray both sides of the story.
“I believe the problem is often based in prejudice: don’t presume that someone has particular political beliefs purely because of their background and/or religion.”
Ms Bouattia has also come under fire for helping to defeat a motion at last year’s NUS conference to condemn ISIS, saying that the condemnation was a “justification for war and blatant Islamophobia.”
In a response to the letter, Ms Bouattia strongly refuted allegations claiming she believed Jewish societies were a problem, saying, “The answer is that I do not now, nor did I five years ago when I contributed to the article cited in your letter, see a large Jewish Society on campus as a problem. “I celebrate the ability of people and students of all backgrounds to get together and express their backgrounds and faith openly and positively, and will continue to do so.”
Going on to say that it was Zionist politics she had a problem with, rather than Jewish people in general, Ms Bouattia accused the signatories of the letter of “drawing a link” between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Regarding the SOAS event she attended, she said, “I criticised the influence of organisations such as the Henry Jackson Society over policy making in the UK.
“I described it as promoting neocon and pro-Zionist policies. In no way did I – or would I – link these positions to Jewish people, but to a particular (non-Jewish) organisation.”
She also said that she was not was not aware of the previous statements of the MPACUK group, and that she had now deleted her comments thanking them for their support in order to avoid confusion over her views.
Ms Bouattia went on to dismiss the allegations against her as politically motivated, saying that her “views are being misconstrued and used as an opportunity to falsely accuse [her] of antisemitism, despite [her] work and dedication to liberation, equality and inclusion saying otherwise.”
“As president of NUS, I would continue to encourage students to oppose inequality, oppression – including racism – and injustice both at home and abroad.
“And in doing this, I am happy to be accountable for my views, offer opportunities to discuss them and used that openness and accountability to ensure that I can be representative of the student body as a whole, whilst respecting and encompassing the varied views and opinions held across our movement,” she went on to say.
The letter has an additional 239 signatures in solidarity from students from across the UK.
One such student is Joel Salmon, a St Andrews student who is also a former president of the Jewish Society and is now President of the Coexistence Initiative.
Speaking to The Saint, Mr Salmon said that it was “important that there is a united response from the student community to a candidate who has views that are not only unrepresentative of the student population but also deeply problematic and offensive.”
Mr Salmon went on to say that he believed that significant elements of the NUS have a problem with anti- Semitism, adding that they were largely on the political left of the group.
Continuing, Mr Salmon said that, “This is due to a number of issuewhich largely revolve around Israel, the Palestinian cause and Zionism. In essence, and this is an issue on the left in general, there is not an appreciation of the hugely grey area between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
“For these people, these two things are very easily separated but in fact they are intimately linked. When people criticise the Zionist lobby, the Jewish media, and the very existence of the Israeli state, the language they use is heavily related to much older anti-Semitic tropes.
Mr Salmon made clear that he did not believe that criticism of the Israeli government was the same as being anti-Semitic, adding that he personally found the policies of the current Netanyahu movement “repulsive.”
“The problem is such protests and arguments very quickly become existential, and targeted at the entire state and its people. That then becomes very scary indeed,” he said.
Henna Auerbach, another St Andrews student who signed the petition also described St Andrews as “one of the safest places in the country to be Jewish.”
Going on, Ms Auerbach said, “Ms. Bouattia’s comments about Jewish Socities in the past are worrying.
“I believe it’s important that she be called to answer our questions. Hopefully, the more names on the letter means she will take the time to answer us appropriately.”