Undergraduates campaign to break ties with the NUS over its new leader Malia Bouattias controversial stance
Are you feeling the urge for another referendum? Students at Cambridge University are. Some undergraduates are leading a campaign to break ties with the National Union of Students and on Monday the Cambridge students union is expected to approve plans to hold a referendum following the election of NUS president Malia Bouattia. If Labour has a problem with allegations of antisemitism, so does the nations youngest union leadership.
In Cambridge, a group called NUS:Let Cambridge Decide wants to ask students to disaffiliate from the national body. The university is at the forefront of protests against Bouattia. Students at Oxford, Lincoln, York, Exeter, Durham and Manchester universities are also considering their future relationship with the NUS.
Although student politics is often derided as inconsequential, a split involving some of the most influential universities in Britain would have a serious impact on an organisation that has in the past nurtured MPs including Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, Phil Woolas, Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy. Jack May, a third-year English student at Gonville and Caius, kickstarted the campaign on Twitter while votes were still being counted at the NUS conference in Brighton.
If Malias elected, whos up for mounting a Cambridge campaign for disaffiliation? he tweeted and by 3pm NUS: Let Cambridge Decide had a Facebook page and nearly 100 supporters.
So, what is it about the new president that prompted the campaign for disaffiliation before her election had even been confirmed? Bouattia, 28, who left Algeria when aged seven and studied at Birmingham University, has attracted most criticism for a 2011 blogpost in which she wrote: The University of Birmingham is something of a Zionist outpost in British higher education. It also has the largest J-Soc [Jewish society] in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists.
Bouattia, who was NUS black students officer for two years, was also filmed criticising the Zionist-led media and spoke at a pro-Palestine meeting advertised with a picture of the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. Jewish societies from 51 universities published a letter that asks Bouattia: Why do you see a large Jewish society as a problem?
Bouattia tried to justify her position in the Guardian and in an interview on Channel 4 News. But her opponents remain unconvinced. Adam Crafton, a fourth-year modern languages student at Homerton college, who is Jewish, was one of the first to join Mays campaign. Malia had the opportunity to speak on C4 News and she was asked on three occasions to say if she recognised the right of Israel to exist, and she didnt, he said. When you talk about a Zionist-led global media, youre using a long-standing antisemitic trope. It brings to mind the old cartoons of Jews holding globes in their hands, the global conspiracy ideas.
Another campaigner is Oriyan Prizant, a mature student from Israel who has served in the Israel Defence Forces. He said: [Bouattia] is using an ambiguity of language to cloak an antisemitic message then hide behind it.
If you say Birmingham University is a Zionist outpost because it has a large Jewish society, thats antisemitism. He said that when she was elected, it felt like she was being rewarded.
Bouattia has substantial and vocal support. The criticism directed at her is unfair and based on a selective misquotation, according to Anna Khalfaoui, a former president of the Cambridge University Palestine society. She was expressly referring to Zionist activists, Khalfaoui said, adding that Zionism is used by the Israeli government to justify occupation of Palestinian territories.
At no point did she refer to a large Jewish student population as a challenge and not something to be welcomed or a large Jewish society as a problem. Khalfaoui, a second-year law student at Trinity College, spoke of a smear campaign against Bouattia. There are so many reasons to celebrate the fact that we have the first black, Muslim woman being elected to the job, she said. Istrongly believe that her comments do not reflect any kind of prejudice or racism.
The NUS: Let Cambridge Decide campaign is proposing a referendum motion On Monday at a council meeting of the student union. Each of Cambridges 33 colleges has a student union known as a junior common room (JCR) and most are entitled to vote. A two-thirds majority is required to hold a referendum, but even opponents to disaffiliation believe the JCRs will pass the motion.
Were pretty confident that we will get a referendum, May said. Most people seem to agree that theres a good case for having a debate at least. The referendum would be held on 17 May two days after exams start. The timing is not ideal, May conceded. My first exam is on the 19th. But this is important too.
Campaigners are also concerned that the NUS is blighted by an undercurrent of antisemitism, referring to applause for a delegate who spoke against commemorating Holocaust memorial day. When you hear the noise and cheers at the NUS conference, it tells you there is a deeper problem in student life, Crafton said. When people say Why not fight from within, why should Jewish people be forced to engage with an organisation that cheers speakers against Holocaust memorial day?
Prizant, a third-year law student at Wolfson, said he had experienced antisemitism on several occasions, even during an interview for a place at a different Cambridge college, when an academic said his answers were very Jewish. I feel constantly on the backfoot, he said. I feel I have to pay attention carefully to what people say so that I know when Im being attacked.
However, the feeling of being under attack is shared by the other side. Both Khalfaoui and the new Palestine society president, Beth Jamal, who is also womens officer for Cambridges Labour club, were accused of antisemitism and threatened with legal action after they held a demonstration of a mock West Bank checkpoint.
This is outrageous because its attacking the right to protest. We are constantly fighting accusations of antisemitism, Khalfaoui said. When Malia breaks the taboo of criticising the state of Israel, she is being very brave.
Jamal, a second-year law student at Murray Edwards college, said she had become nervous about speaking out. Anyone who takes a national position should accept scrutiny, of course, but this isnt scrutiny its attacks on a number of levels, rape threats, death threats. Do Iwant to put myself through that?