Claims that the new head of the British national student union is anti-Semitic are false and part of a “witch-hunt” and “Islamophobic campaign,” Jewish former student leaders wrote in a letter supporting Malia Bouattia.
Bouattia, who is Muslim, was elected president of the National Union of Students last week but has faced criticism from some who said her anti-Israel activism includes anti-Jewish rhetoric.
The letter to the UK’s Jewish Chronicle said such criticism was part of a series of “a wider narrative” of “racist attacks” against other Muslim leaders.
“It is a narrative that as Jews we should oppose without qualification,” the letter, whose 10 signatories include three former national executive members of the student union, said of such campaigns, accusing them of conflating “opposition to Israel with anti-Jewish prejudice.”
The letter praised Bouattia as having an “outstanding and principled record as an anti-racist activist and NUS Black Students Officer,” and said she had spoken at a pro-refugee event that had included a banner opposing anti-Semitism, along with other forms of prejudice.
The letter was in response to an opinion piece published by the Jewish Chronicle, which was highly critical of Bouattia and called her “a symbolic of the poison of the regressive Left.”
Other British Jews have expressed concern about Bouattia’s appointment.
“Many Jewish students have not been satisfied with Malia’s response so far to the concerns raised by Jewish students over the last few weeks,” the Union of Jewish Students said in a statement following her election.
Prior to Bouattia’s election, more than 50 leaders of Jewish societies at British universities called her out on a controversial blog post she co-authored in 2011. In the post, Bouattia called The University of Birmingham “something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education,” adding that the campus “also has the largest JSoc [Jewish Society] in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists.”
“Our question for you is clear: why do you see a large Jewish Society as a problem?” the Jewish leaders asked Bouattia in their letter.
In response, Bouattia said that her criticism of Israel should not be misconstrued as anti-Semitism and that she does not see large Jewish campus groups as a problem.
Josefin Dolsten is a news fellow at the Forward. She writes about politics and culture, and edits the Sisterhood blog. She received an MA in Jewish Studies and Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a BA in Government from Cornell University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @josefindolsten.