The comment “Congrats to King Bibi, big mazel tov to him for his successful re-election in Israel” by an Exeter NUS delegatecaused a huge disruption in the crowd of student delegates at the National Union of Students (NUS) Conference in Glasgow. I was in that crowd as a delegate of my university, UCL. In response to the comment, people in the audience shouted ‘Free Palestine’ and then some left the venue. Later, I was told that one girl was so distressed by the Exeter student’s comment that she left the room in tears and others followed her trying to comfort her. Afterwards, multiple speakers condemned the Exeter delegate for creating an unwelcoming and unsafe environment. Some went even further, claiming his comments should be classified as hate speech.
Exeter’s delegate was suspended for his comments straight away. Later that day, he apologised for his speech and was reinstated by NUS. However, the following day, his campaign speech (he was running for one of the open positions at NUS) was boycotted by the audience. Upon starting his speech, the majority of the audience stood up, turning their backs to the stage where the Exeter delegate was speaking, creating a visual human wall against him and anything he said even though it was his campaign speech and so not about Israel. This ‘wall’, separating the speaker on the stage from the audience, showed that these views are not welcomed by the NUS community, and that anyone who endorses such views deserves vilification. Anyone I talked on the train from Glasgow back to London about this issue described the events with a sense of moral superiority – they were empowered by the unity when they stood up against this Exeter student. By creating a perfect division between ‘us’ and ‘him’, the Exeter student, the crowd managed to create itself an enemy in only two days.
Like or dislike what the Exeter delegate said, the fact that the NUS Conference could be so easily united over boycotting the delegate for these comments (which barely lasted for ten seconds) is a worrying sign – especially considering the NUS’s long-standing issue with anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
The most infamous recent bout of antisemitism in NUS occurred because of Malia Mazia Bouattia who was the National President between 2016-2017.Prior to Malia becoming a candidate for National President, sheco-authored an article which famously exposed her personal radical views. It starts as follows:
“The University of Birmingham is something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education. It also has the largest JSoc in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists. Just a month ago the ominous EUMC definition of anti-Semitism was adopted as legislation by the student union and the university’s Friends of Palestine society narrowly avoided severe sanctions after one of our guest speakers made a comparison between Israel and the Nazis (a comparison we’d made clear we didn’t endorse) …”
Implicitly, the quoted article endorses conspiracy theories about Israel and the Jewry. Needless to say, these are radical and dangerous views. As an NUS presidential candidate she tried to defend her position expressed in the quoted article by saying:
“I want to be clear that for me to take issue with Zionist politics, is not me taking issue with being Jewish. In fact, Zionist politics are held by people from a variety of different backgrounds and faiths as are anti-Zionist politics. It is a political argument, not one of faith.”
Nevertheless, despite her page-long defence, her comments were condemned by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons for being “outright racism”. As a result of the scandals connected to Malia – and the wider problem they represent, some universities disaffiliated from NUS (e.g. University of Newcastle and Hull), whilst others, like Oxford and Cambridge voted to stay in.
While the worst recent phase of NUS antisemitism scandals ended when Malia lost re-election against Shakira Martin in 2017, not all of its problems have since been resolved. Even during Shakira Martin’s presidency, the NUS repeatedly failed to include Judaism on its religion survey. Shakira had to apologise for this multiple times. Two presidential cycles later, Shakira was succeeded by Zamzam Ibrahim. A couple of years before becoming NUS president Zamzam wrote on Twitter, in answer to a question about the book she thinks everyone should read, “The Quran, We would have an Islamic takeover!”. After becoming president, Zamzam defended herself, saying she was too young when she wrote that tweet, and her views have changed since then. Despite this, during her presidency, Zamzam proudly boycotted Israel and supported the Boycott, Disinvest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which was designed to discourage economic and financial relations with Israel and is a movement often levelled against Jews specifically. This all shows that intolerance and antisemitism in NUS leadership did not in the least disappear simultaneously with the end of Malia’s presidency.
This article is only scratching the surface of the antisemitism and anti-Zionism of NUS, which ultimately raises the question: should we just passively let NUS to carry on without paying much attention to its antisemitic scandals? Should our universities continue to be affiliated with NUS, or should we take action – initiating referendums to leave NUS? There must be more widespread awareness about these vital concerns, especially in light of the fact that NUS elections are due now (until Friday, 19th March) at UCL.
Lili Naómi Zemplényi is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.