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NUS elects anti-Zionist president

    Malia Bouattia (Photo: Alamy)
    Malia Bouattia (Photo: Alamy)

    Jewish students face "a choice" over whether or not they can remain involved in their national union after an anti-Zionist was elected as its president and delegates at its annual conference fought against commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.

    Malia Bouattia - who has spoken out against "Zionist-led media outlets" and described the University of Birmingham, which has one of the largest Jewish societies in the country, as being "something of a Zionist outpost" - was elected head of the National Union of Students.

    She won 372 votes on Wednesday as NUS delegates gathered in Brighton, beating the incumbent, Megan Dunn, by 42 votes. Ms Bouattia will now run the organisation representing over 600 student unions across the UK.

    The Union of Jewish Students expressed concern at the result. "There is now a choice to be made," it said in a statement. "Jewish students need to decide whether NUS has gone too far for them to want to be involved, or whether now is the time to step up the fight from within."

    It added: "UJS will be consulting Jewish students in the near future and will continue to ensure that their interests are best represented."

    Last week, 45 Jewish Society presidents wrote an open letter saying they were "extremely concerned" by Ms Bouattia's remarks about Zionists.

    After Wednesday's result, they said that they had not yet "received adequate answers" from the former Birmingham University student.

    Ms Bouattia's election came a day after a video clip emerged of her referring to "Zionist-led media" in a speech. In the video, leaked anonymously to student newspaper The Tab, she said: "With mainstream Zionist-led media outlets - because once again we're dealing with the population of the global south - resistance is presented as an act of terrorism." During the same speech she also appeared to support violent Palestinian resistance.

    Ms Bouattia was also endorsed by Raza Nadim of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, an organisation once banned by the NUS due to its antisemitism, who said the open letter was indicative of the "Zio lobby". She had previously hit the headlines in 2014 when she was criticised for not supporting a motion condemning Daesh. She said then that to do so would be Islamophobic.

    Beleaguered Jewish students were also astonished by a discussion over whether to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, with some students claiming that doing so would not be "inclusive".

    Despite objections to it, the motion re-affirming NUS's commitment to fighting antisemitism, including an amendment to officially commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, passed by a large majority.

    Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North and former NUS president, reacted with dismay to the day's events, saying "I am afraid comments I have seen Malia Bouattia make make her unfit for elected office.

    "NUS conference were applauding people not commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. I think students up and down the country need to ask if NUS is fit for purpose."

    Jewish students across the country reacted to the day's events with outrage and disappointment. Adam Schapira, President of the Jewish Society at University College, London, called for Ms Bouattia - the NUS Black Students Officer for the past two years - to step down from the post.

    In a statement he said: "As NUS president, Malia will leave an indelible mark on an organisation that claims to fight against all forms of hate and intolerance. It frankly discredits NUS as an organisation, and Jewish students are rightly outraged by this. In light of this, I am calling for her immediate withdrawal from NUS."

    At Cambridge University a campaign has been launched to disassociate the union from the NUS after Ms Bouattia's election, while Oxford JSoc president Isaac Virchis said: "It is hypocritical of NUS to pass a motion making a commitment to anti-Semitism and then twenty minutes later to elect a President who has problematic views towards Jewish students on campus. NUS conference has failed Jewish students and can no longer claim to be representative of each and every student."

    Ms Bouattia herself appeared to address her critics in her election speech, referring to how her family had to flee Algeria when she was a child because of extremist violence. She said: "I know many of you will have seen my name dragged through the mud by right-wing media. You'll have read that I'm a terrorist, that my politics are driven by hate. How wrong that is. I know too well the price of terrorism, the consequences of violence and oppression. I saw a country ripped apart by terror, was pushed into exile by its doing. I know too well the damage done by racism and persecution – I faced it every day.

    "And I will continue to fight in all its forms, whoever its targets, whether it's antisemitism, islamophobia, xenophobia or any other bigoted idea."

    However, Jonathan Arkush, Board of Deputies president, expressed concern that Ms Bouattia had failed "to satisfactorily clarify past remarks and associations".

    He said: "There can be no excuse for associating with organisations who have a history of antisemitism, equivocating on terrorism or considering Jewish societies on campus as 'a challenge'.

    "Jewish students have as much right to feel safe on campus as anyone else, and as a president tasked with representing the welfare and concerns of all students, Ms Bouattia must live up to her responsibility and take the concerns of Jewish students seriously."

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