Three vice presidents of the National Union of Students (NUS) have accused their president of “anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
Malia Bouattia was elected President of the NUS earlier this year amid controversy over past remarks, including a blog post in 2011 where she referred to the University of Birmingham as “something of a Zionist outpost.”
Now a letter signed by 44 student leaders says: “Jewish students have not felt safe participating in our national movement.”
Ms Bouattia’s election was followed by a wave of disaffiliation campaigns at several major universities. Including Oxford and Cambridge.
Only Newcastle, Hull, Lincoln and Loughborough voted to leave. St Andrews has not been a member of the NUS since 1975.
The letter, which does not mentionMs Bouattia by name, says: “NUS’ leadership has rightly come under increased scrutiny for its attitude towards Jewish students.”
Richard Brooks, a vice-president of the NUS who signed the letter, said they wanted the thousands of Jewish students about to start university to feel the NUS movement was a “place for them”.
“It is for Jewish students to define what anti-Semitism is,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One.
“It is obviously a very challenging and nuanced argument, but when a number of Jewish students over a consistent period of time say they do not feel safe participating in student politics and in the student movement, I think we have to take that really seriously and listen.”
He said comments on social media as well as the tone of rhetoric in student politics made Jewish students feel unsafe or at least unwelcome. The open letter is not the first to be released criticising Ms Bouattia, another, signed by 57 chairs and presidents of UK university Jewish societies was released while she was a candidate for the NUS presidency. That letter was signed by the president of the St Andrews Jewish society, Kathryn Rose.
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.”