The election of the left-wing, pro-Palestine and minority rights activist Malia Bouattia as President of the National Union of Students has provoked ardent condemnation by self-declared guardians of liberal tolerance.
The NUS itself, which has for some time been dominated by the right, is in a state of collective panic. Elite universities are threatening disaffiliation. Among students themselves Bouattia is popular enough (she won 50% of the votes), but her enemies have been quick to associate her with antisemitism, citing co-authored blogposts, speeches, public statements and her voting history as NUS black students officer as incontrovertible proof of the dark times ahead.
Yet it hardly takes the most thoroughgoing journalist to discover how much the panic about Bouattia and the supposed antisemitic bent of young student activists relies on exaggeration, misreading and vicious personal attack. The fact that Bouattia is a black Muslim woman in a new-found position of leadership can hardly have escaped the attention of her many attackers, though their interventions are peculiarly framed as anti-racist. Bouattia has not claimed to have a perfect record and has embarked on meeting with Jewish groups to repair any damage she might have caused in the past. Yet rather than shouting Bouattia - a very rare female Muslim voice in a position of public leadership - down, her critics would do well to read her past and present statements a little more closely and with less of the distortion that has characterised so much of the debate about antisemitism, Islam and the Left.
So what are the allegations made against Bouattia and how do the claims stack up against what she actually said and did?
Numerous articles have appeared in the right wing press, some within hours of her election, passing judgement on Bouattia and her allies. It is possible that the Daily Telegraph follows student politics with a keen eye, but rather more likely is that these early pieces were assembled from briefings by the defeated right-wing of the NUS itself.
The first was a straight news story, whose opening paragraph contained the oft-repeated accusation that Bouattia had blocked an NUS statement "condemning ISIS" during her time as black students' officer. In fact Bouattia had requested an amendment and then later voted in favour of it. The Telegraph failed to address this part of the story, or to provide any balance to its negative news coverage of her.
According to Bouattia herself in her recent Guardian op-ed, "Two years ago I delayed a National Executive Council motion condemning Isis – but that was because of its wording, not because of its intent. Its language appeared to condemn all Muslims, not just the terror group. Once it was worded correctly I proposed and wholly supported the motion." If Bouattia is lying about her subsequent support for the statement, this would need to be proved. However, no one has even alleged she maintained her opposition, and nobody has bothered to report the fact the statement was eventually passed.
Two days after this initial reaction the Telegraph invited Aaron Simons, former head of Oxford University's Jewish Society, to comment. Simons described Bouattia's election as "a dark message to Jews" and compared her "rhetoric" to "Neo-Nazism." Stating that Bouattia's politics was "anything but nuanced", he catalogued the accusations against her:
"There are intelligent analyses to be made of the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac, the US pro-Israel lobbying group), or of media bias in international conflict. Then there is the claim that “Zionist lobbies” control the UK government’s counter-terrorism policy and that the “Zionist-led media” orchestrates the misrepresentation of the “global south”. This is dog-whistle anti-Semitism at a deafening volume, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as 21st-century text."
Simons is quite right to point to the ideological slippage which sometimes takes place in anti-Zionist politics, from criticising to conspiracy theorising. But the "dog-whistle politics" he cites requires a presumed audience, and suggests Bouattia was deliberately stirring up resentment towards Jews in general. Bouattia is guilty of using a lazy shorthand which could clearly encourage a reductionist, even antisemitic view among her readers. She must be more careful in her criticisms of Israel, as it is her responsibility to inform as well as to criticise. However, it is highly questionable if her remarks amount to antisemitism as such.
I have personal reservations about the term anti-Zionism, and have argued its ambiguity can play into all the wrong hands. Yet for the many who identify as anti-Zionist, the point nevertheless needs to be made: Bouattia makes no reference to "Jews" or a "Jewish-controlled media." Her references to the "Zionist-led media" may be reductionist and clumsy, but I can't see how they are principally or even mainly antisemitic in effect. In Bouattia's recent reply to her critics she publicly wrote: “For me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish … it is a political argument, not one of faith.”
To be clear then - these are perhaps the worst statements Bouattia is accused of making. It is grossly mistaken to accuse major media outlets of being "Zionist-led." For this there should be no apologising. Yet do these comments or others warrant the attacks being levelled against her?
A day later veteran right-winger Simon Heffer made Simons look pretty level headed by accusing Bouattia of "vilifying Jews." A yawning gap between deed and accusation has opened up - without even so much as proper citation. Perhaps Heffer was referring to Bouattia's comments about Birmingham University Jewish Society being "the largest in the country" and the university being "something of a Zionist outpost." Of course, these comments are problematic because they suggest a possible dislike for Jewish religious self-organisation. Bouattia cannot be excused from these implications and there should be pressure on her to clarify her arguments in future and repair any damage this has caused.
Responding to Bouattia's election Daniel Clemens, the president of Birmingham J-Soc, puts his own views on record: “I think that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two[sic] and the same thing. Zionism is the belief that Jewish people should have a homeland to live in without threat of annihilation or war. This stems from a Jewish belief. So when someone attacks Zionism they’re indirectly attacking Judaism as a religion, because the two go hand in hand.”
So Bouattia, according to Clemens himself, is really only guilty of criticising Zionism, which for him is de facto antisemitism since the link is a theological one. To be clear about the implications of Clemens' argument: imagine a situation where criticism of the British or French state was equal to treason. It is an extremely authoritarian view which would impose the same ban on dissent sought by religious fundamentalists around the world. This is also a thoroughly ahistorical argument: there have been other forms of Jewish nationalism and of Jewish political identity besides Zionism (see: Bundism). Clemens' argument is worryingly reductive.
Simon Heffer went further, calling Bouattia "dangerous" and an "extremist", while her supporters were "odious" and should all be "prosecuted for incitement." Heffer issued these attacks following a single paragraph which restated the aforementioned accusations, shorn of context or any citation or referencing which might make such context available.
By the first of May the posited identity of anti-Zionism and antisemitism had been tacitly confirmed, as the millionaire Tory party treasurer Mick Davis was given space in the Telegraph to condemn the entire left as "antisemitic" and as having "toxic views" - arguing also that anti-Zionist views were "mostly" a facade for antisemitism.
This then became the venue in which to reiterate Israel's "vibrant democracy" - ignoring of course the disenfranchisement of the Occupied Territories or Israel'sown often persecuted Arab citizens (this according to Israeli daily Haaretz). Davis also went so far as to suggest a plot by liberal media outlets and the left to focus exclusively on Israel's "failings" (again ignoring the Left's very loud criticisms of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other authoritarian, Islamic and secular Arab regimes).
This process of intensifying caricature of pro-Palestinian arguments, starting with the sometimes problematic language of left-wing activists and proceeding to a demonisation of the left at large and an uncritical celebration of Israel itself, is dangerous for several reasons. First, it enshrines the false assumption that criticism of Israel is somehow identical with antisemitism. Second, it eradicates any trace of nuance from debates about the Middle East, one that is far more damaging than any leftish political correctness it opposes. Thirdly, at its most elaborate and rhetorical it posits a kind of liberal conspiracy against Israel, run by Islamists, their leftie sympathisers, and a politically correct media. In other words, it skirts the obsessions of the far-right.
When these arguments are advanced without countervailing views, especially by Tory millionaires or commentators who,in Simon Heffer's case, have a tendency to scapegoat liberalism (he is the author of the Spectator's famous Hillsborough rant, an opponent of gay rights and advocate for the influence of Christian values on education and society), public discourse suffers. Eventually the space for rational argument is gravely reduced.
Malia Bouattia has her Jewish defenders. One group of former students and NUS members wrote to the Jewish Chronicle defending her from what they called an "Islamophobic" campaign. The Guardian also printed a letterby Mike Cushman, convenor of Jews for Boycotting Israel, which drew attention again to the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. There are no doubt others, and though it may even be the case that they are in the minority, you would expect the media to show some interest in their views.
In its coverage of Bouattia's election the Guardian did at least acknowledge some of the left's defence of the new president, though featured no pro-Palestinian Jewish voices. Not only does this play into the narrative of a strict religious-cum-racial divide, it also excludes dissident Jewish opinion. Though evidence shows the vast majority of British Jews support Israel's right to exist, two thirds are critical of Israeli policy towards the occupied territories. A plurality of opinion is unsurprising - Jews are not a homogeneous group. But you wouldn't know from even the liberal Guardian's coverage that a majority of British Jews agree with some of the views articulated by the pro-Palestinian left. Indeed, public statements defending key figures on the left from accusations of antisemitism, including the Jewish Socialists' Group, have been massively under-reported. The views of Jews are as divided as those of Muslims or indeed any other group - and we must seek to build alliances where we can.
In effect, what is being stymied is criticism by the left not only of Israel but also of the implementation of the Prevent Agenda to police extremism (which has proved seriously unpopular among students despite the government spending years trying to implement it). One reason Bouattia won the recent elections was her opposition to Prevent. Following Bouattia's election prominent "anti-extremism" activist and government adviser Maajid Nawaz took to the Jewish Chronicle to deride Bouattia as a symbol of the "poison" of the "regressive left." Indeed Nawaz perversely blames the left for the rise of right-wing populism, failing to mention the left's campaigning against media harassment of migrants and refugees.
Nawaz picks up the IS statement rejection story (again failing to report Bouattia's subsequent support for it) and her comments on the Birmingham University JSoc. But most telling is Nawaz's quotation at length of a Bouattia speech in which she questioned the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and the dissociation of international campaigners from violent Palestinian resistance, suggesting they were too weak to really secure Palestinian liberation. She said at the time:
“To consider that Palestine will be free only by means of fundraising, non-violent protest and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is problematic… My issue is that whilst at time it’s tactically used, or presented as the non-violent option, it can be misunderstood as the alternative to resistance by the Palestinian people…"
Bouattia was highly critical of the peace process, which she said was only deepening colonisation and prolonging Palestinian suffering. This "chilling speech", Nawaz suggests, is a sign of the intolerance and bigotry of the student left. It is a mark of how low the standard of debate on Israel-Palestine has fallen that Bouattia's words could be met with such horror. Bouattia's views are far from unconventional - indeed they were voiced by the late Edward Said in very similar language during the Second Palestinian Intifada:
"What of this vaunted peace process? What has it achieved and why, if indeed it was a peace process, has the miserable condition of the Palestinians and the loss of life become so much worse than before the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993? And why is it, as the New York Times noted on 5 November, that ‘the Palestinian landscape is now decorated with the ruins of projects that were predicated on peaceful integration’? And what does it mean to speak of peace if Israeli troops and settlements are still present in such large numbers? Again, according to RISOT, 110,000 Jews lived in illegal settlements in Gaza and the West Bank before Oslo; the number has since increased to 195,000, a figure that doesn’t include those Jews – more than 150,000 – who have taken up residence in Arab East Jerusalem. Has the world been deluded or has the rhetoric of ‘peace’ been in essence a gigantic fraud?"
Though many disagreed with Said's radical criticisms of the peace process and of the compromises of the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority, there was no concerted effort to silence him or remove him from public life.
How different are things today, when a self-styled anti-extremist - and former adviser to George Bush and David Cameron - can label a Muslim student leader a threat to peaceful dialogue with barely a mutter of dissent. It is precisely the concerted manipulation of misplaced words into elaborate racial crimes that is allowing critics of Israeli and by extension US and British foreign policy to be silenced.