When Boris Johnson talks about ‘watermelon smiles’, or calls PoC “piccaninnies”, is it a slip of the tongue? An honest mistake? Unfortunate language by a man with benevolent intentions? Or are these comments dripping with prejudice, scarcely disguised under a thin veneer of political critique?
The answer seems clear, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the NUS’ defenders have been talking about Malia Bouattia’s now infamous comments. Her words were deprived of context, we are told, and that she has been an anti-racist campaigner all her life. What was Boris’ response? “The Tory Mayoral candidate insisted he “loathed and despised” racism and his words, written more than five years ago, had been taken out of context.”
No-one openly admits to their racism, especially not those in positions of power. To do so would be political suicide. Prejudice comes complete with facades and distortions, but occasionally the mask slips, and dark and disturbing views see the light of day. The argument that Malia’s comments were “taken out of context” is as credible as Boris’ comparable defence. Watch the video where she talks about a “Zionist-led media.” She spoke about generic “Zionist and neo-con lobbies” controlling the government Prevent agenda. If you want context, here’s context: the age old anti-semitic tropes of Jewish power and media control, scarcely veiled by the use of the term ‘Zionist’.
“Two Jews, three opinions” is a running joke in our community. Jews hardly ever agree on anything. And yet, here there is a startling unanimity. 57 Jewish Society Presidents from around the country, over 85 per cent of Oxford Jewish Society, every Oxford JSoc President and Vice President of the past two years, the Union of Jewish Students, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Chief Rabbi, and vast swathes of the Jewish community are all unequivocal in their opposition to NUS anti-semitism, including the remarks of Malia Bouattia.
Although some on the Yes to NUS campaign have already told us what they think of Jewish concerns. According to this piece, Jewish students’ concerns about Malia’s comments are in fact the product of Islamophobia. It’s a charge that originated with Bouattia herself, who responded to Jewish student concerns by claiming that this constituted “an attack on [her] faith”.
Islamophobia is vile and it is seen in the implicit claims that Malia is an ISIS sympathiser. This accusation here, however, is nothing more than a silencing mechanism against Jewish students, allowing Malia’s defenders to avoid the fact that she has been condemned by virtually every section of the Jewish community. We know anti-Jewish prejudice when we see it and hear it, and to claim that our fight against anti-semitism is disingenuous, or a cynical outing of anti-Muslim hatred is an unacceptable insult towards the UK Jewish community. It is repugnant that Yes campaigners are willing to defend their cause by setting ethnic minorities against each other.
This whole episode is part of a growing disease at the heart of the student movement. It is not just the anti-semitism itself, but the response to it. It’s the denial, the attempt to explain anti-semitism away, the talking over Jewish students, the idea that Jewish societies are somehow unrepresentative, the accusation of fabrication, the idea that we’re all just making it up as one giant Zionist conspiracy committed to defending Israeli crimes, and the lack of any sort of apology for any distress caused.
Consider the fact that this is now a real calculation for many Jewish students: Do I want a university experience free of anti-semitism, or do I want to be involved in student politics? For as long as the NUS apologists and Malia’s defenders run free, this is the choice we now face.
Ultimately, the only valid argument regarding NUS affiliation and anti-semitism is a pragmatic one. How do we tackle the problem? Should we stay in and fight the good fight for reform, or disaffiliate and leave, making a principled stand against anti-semitism as we do so?
There’s a reason Jewish students don’t buy promises of reform. We’ve been told change is coming for years and we’re still waiting. “Last week I resigned from my position as a National Executive Committee member, because of a continued apathy within the National Union of Students to Jewish student suffering.” This is Luciana Berger, and it’s from 2005. An anti-semitic sickness has infected the NUS for over a decade. And nothing has changed.
There are other reasons to be sceptical. Take, for example, the selective misrepresentation of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), which fully supports Oxford Jewish Society’s position on disaffiliation. We’ve been told that Malia ‘listened’ to Jewish students by organising a meeting with UJS. The Yes campaign chooses to omit, however, the outcome of that meeting, where nothing was resolved. As the UJS campaigns director wrote, “I did not accept the invitation so that Malia could use it in the Guardian to attempt to improve her public image… Malia needs to go further to redress the concerns that were put to her… Many Jewish students will feel that they are unable to engage with an NUS under her leadership.”
But I think the biggest reason Jewish students have no faith in reform comes from the Yes campaign itself. It comes from the whitewashing of Maila’s comments, the smearing of the Jewish community as Islamophobic for having the audacity to speak out, and the co-opting of the fight against anti-semitism against the views of the overwhelming majority of Oxford’s Jewish Society. How can the Yes to NUS campaigners claim that they will fight anti-semitism in one breath, whilst simultaneously arguing Malia was innocently misunderstood in the next? Yes To NUS are selling Jewish students hopes and dreams that will soon turn to nightmares. Reform is an empty promise, and Jewish students are sick and tired of being duped.
So let’s cut through the distractions, the smoke and mirrors, and see the issue for what it is. This is an NUS President who has made anti-semitic comments, and who was subsequently elected regardless; this is an organisation where arguing against Holocaust commemoration is cause for widespread applause; this is an organisation with a long history of anti-semitism that expects Jewish students to buy empty promises of reform; and an organisation whose defenders in Oxford seek to defend the indefensible and ignore the overwhelming majority of the Jewish student voice.
Enough is enough. If you want to hear a message from Oxford’s Jewish students, let it be this one. Get out of the NUS. Get out now. Only disaffiliation can provide a big enough shock to the system to purge our student movement of this vile prejudice.