The National Union of Students is Britain’s largest membership organization, representing 7 million students. So when it recently elected Malia Bouattia as its new president, and rumors swirled around that she was an anti-Semite, Jewish students on British campuses reportedly felt isolated and uncomfortable.
But is Bouattia really an anti-Semite? Isn’t she merely, as she claims, an anti-racist activist who happens to be an anti-Zionist?
It’s far too easy to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Doing so shuts down debate and cheapens the accusation of Jew hatred. If you’re a religious Jew who believes that a Jewish state shouldn’t be formed before the coming of the Messiah, your theological conviction is anti-Zionist but it certainly isn’t anti-Semitic. And if you believe in cosmopolitanism — the philosophical position that there should be no international borders, and therefore that the Jewish people shouldn’t have a nation state of their own, because no people should — that’s anti-Zionist, but again, it’s not anti-Semitic.
But to answer the question about Bouattia in particular, you have to know something about the internal politics of NUS as an organization.
NUS runs a number of autonomous liberation campaigns for underrepresented or oppressed student groups. There’s a campaign for women students, for LGBTQ students, for black students (defined as students of African, Asian or Arabic heritage) and for disabled students. These campaigns hold their own conferences, decide their own policies and elect officers to sit on the executive committee of NUS in order to represent their campaigns to the wider movement.
In the wake of the racially motivated 1993 murder of a black British man named Stephen Lawrence and the public inquiry that followed, progressive politics in Britain became wedded to a result of the inquiry — the MacPherson doctrine — which said that racism should be defined by the victims thereof. It’s not for white people, say, to decide what is and isn’t offensive toward black people.
The NUS liberation campaigns embody that principle. It would be almost unthinkable for the NUS conference to debate what it means for something to be racist against black students. That would be a discussion for the black students’ conference, not for anyone else.
To the best of my knowledge, there is only one minority group that has ever had to discuss, in front of the entire NUS conference, what they consider to be an attack on their identity.
We Jews don’t have a liberation campaign.
Around 10 years ago, I was elected to the national executive committee of NUS. Back then we already felt that certain forms of anti-Zionism were merely anti-Semitism in sheep’s clothing. To compare the plight of Palestinians to the plight of Jews at the hands of the Nazis was to use the memory of the Holocaust as a stick to beat its victims and their descendants. We therefore believed that criticism of Israel, though it should be free, robust and heartfelt, should steer clear of those comparisons, not merely because they were grossly inaccurate, but because they constituted a form of anti-Semitism.
We believed that it was fine to deny Jews a right to self-determination if you were a religious Jewish anti-Zionist or a cosmopolitan. But it was anti-Semitic if you thought that other peoples who claimed such a right — such as the Palestinians, Kurds or Tibetans — deserved to have it. You couldn’t allow everyone except Jews to have national aspirations.
Accordingly, we proposed to the NUS conference that it adopt the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which enshrines all these convictions. I had to stand at the podium in front of 1,000 student delegates, who represented millions of students, and argue our position. I felt like a court Jew of the Middle Ages, pleading to the gentile powers to heed our concerns. Black students or disabled students at NUS would never have had to suffer the humiliation of appealing to their own detractors to heed their understanding of their own identity and struggle. They have autonomous liberation campaigns within the body of NUS. We don’t.
I had to leave the room when my non-Jewish colleagues got up to attack our motion. I didn’t want the audience to see me cry. We won that debate, but I had never in all my life felt so judged for being Jewish as I did standing in front of that room of delegates, pleading our case.
Bouattia is an anti-Zionist. Not merely a critic of Israeli policy or of the occupation, she describes her position in terms of anti-Zionism — opposition to the existence of a Jewish state — and yet she’s all for the national rights of other peoples. She’s in favor of Palestinian national rights and she stands in solidarity with the Kurds. Other people can have self-determination, just not Jews. I’m not defending the MacPherson doctrine here (I can understand why some people might think that racism is an objective evil and that nobody should have a monopoly over the right to define it), but it seems that for Bouattia, this doctrine should protect only non-Jewish minorities.
Putting to one side the fact that Bouattia criticizes the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel for sidelining violent “resistance” against innocent citizens (which makes her a sympathizer with Hamas and the worst forms of violent extremists), I think I’ve done enough to establish that according to the EUMC, whose definition was ultimately adopted by NUS, she is an anti-Semite. To be clear, I’m not personally accusing her of anti-Semitism, but it does seem that this label would apply to her based on the EUMC’s working definition.
Of course, she’ll come back to her claim that we’re confusing anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. But this is coming from a person who refused, at first blush, to support a motion condemning the Islamic State group because she feared it would be perceived as an attack on Muslims. She pressed for a differently worded motion, but I struggle to see what in the original wording was Islamophobic. Clearly, Bouattia is a person who thinks that we should be very sensitive when it comes to the feelings of non-Jewish minorities, but that Jews are just too sensitive.
Under her leadership, I fear that the British student movement will become a place in which Jews will really feel welcome only if they’re willing to adopt an understanding of their identity that doesn’t ruffle any feathers. They will have to be good court Jews. And I know from painful experience how alienating that can be. It’s time for the student movement in Britain and the political left in general to eradicate the pernicious forms of anti-Semitism that are flourishing in their midst.
I have nothing but admiration for the Jewish student leaders who have been left to fight this fight. But some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known were the non-Jewish student leaders who, in my time in the movement, stood shoulder to shoulder with us, and with all victims of racism, whatever their background or religion. We need people like them if we’re going to win this fight.
Samuel Lebens is an Orthodox rabbi and a research fellow at Rutgers University, where he works on the philosophy of religion and metaphysics.