Comments by the president of the National Union of Students describing Birmingham University as a “Zionist outpost” smack of “outright racism”, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has found.
In scathing findings, the committee said that Malia Bouattia did not appear to take the issue of campus anti-Semitism “sufficiently seriously” and showed a “worrying disregard” for her duty to represent all students and promote balanced and respectful debate.
Ms Bouattia’s statement in a co-authored 2011 blog that Birmingham “has the largest Jsoc (Jewish Society) in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists” was condemned in the MPs’ report as “unacceptable, and even more so from a public figure such as the president of the NUS”.
The report questioned whether the NUS was effectively addressing the issue of anti-Semitism, and called on the union and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) to “work to mend their broken relationship”.
The UJS should be given the power to elect a Jewish member of the union’s Anti-Racism Anti-Fascist (ARAF) taskforce, without requiring the approval of the NUS president, said the report. If the UJS felt, after a one-year grace period, that ARAF was not taking anti-Semitism on campus seriously, then a dedicated Anti-Semitism Taskforce should be set up at executive level of the NUS.
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush told the inquiry that he regarded Ms Bouattia’s comments about Birmingham and her reference in a 2014 speech to “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets” as anti-Semitic.
The NUS also faced criticism following a debate, at the 2016 conference at which she was elected president, in which some delegates argued against events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Since the conference, students’ unions at Hull, Lincoln, Newcastle and Loughborough have voted to disaffiliate from the NUS.
In a written response to the inquiry, Ms Bouattia said she was “deeply concerned” about the reported rise of anti-Semitism in universities and regarded tackling the problem as “a key priority”. Referring to the Birmingham blog, she insisted: “I do not now, nor did I five years ago at the time of publication, see a large Jewish Society on a campus as a problem”.
She added: “I want to be clear that for me to take issue with Zionist politics, is not me taking issue with being Jewish … As NUS national president I intend to fight for the rights and safety of all students, including Jewish students. I want to reiterate that at NUS we are absolutely clear that there is no place for any form of racism, including anti-Semitism, within the student movement or within wider society.”
But the report found: “The current President of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouattia, does not appear to take sufficiently seriously the issue of anti-Semitism on campus, and has responded to Jewish students’ concerns about her previous language with defensiveness and an apparent unwillingness to listen to their concerns.
“Ms Bouattia’s choice of language (and ongoing defence of that language) suggests a worrying disregard for her duty to represent all sections of the student population and promote balanced and respectful debate. Referring to Birmingham University as a ‘Zionist outpost’ (and similar comments) smacks of outright racism, which is unacceptable, and even more so from a public figure such as the president of the NUS.
“The unique nature of anti-Semitism requires a unique response, which may not be effectively addressed by the steps that the NUS is currently taking. For the sake of their own credibility and to ensure Jewish students across the UK are treated appropriately, the NUS and the Union of Jewish Students should work to mend their broken relationship.”
The committee also said it was “disappointing” that the Labour Party had failed to publish in full a report into allegations of anti-Semitism at Oxford University Labour Club. And it said it was unfortunate that this report was not mentioned in Baroness Chakrabarti’s wider inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party.
The Home Affairs Committee said it was “perfectly legitimate” for students to campaign against the actions of the Israeli government, but called for resources to be provided to help them inform themselves about both sides of the argument.