Malia Bouattia was elected the first black and Muslim woman president of the National Union of Students recently following one of the most high-profile and controversial elections there NUS has ever had.
However, her election was not without controversy. During her campaign, Bouattia was urged to respond to allegations of antisemitism after an open letter from presidents of Jewish student societies accused her of having referred to the University of Birmingham as a “Zionist outpost”.
During the election campaign, over 50 heads of Jewish societies from universities throughout the country wrote an open letter to Bouattia asking her to clarify her position on antisemitism.
In a detailed reply, Bouattia denied she had ever had issues with Jewish societies on campus. “I celebrate the ability of people and students of all backgrounds to get together and express their backgrounds and faith openly and positively, and will continue to do so,” she wrote.
Bouattia responded: “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 faiths, as are anti-Zionist politics. ”
Yet at this week’s NUS conference, Bouattia was overwhelmingly popular choice, winning on the first round by more than 50 delegate votes and unseating the incumbent Megan Dunn, an extremely rare occurrence.
This is not the first time that Bouattia has had to defend her position. In 2014 she was accused by several tabloids of blocking a student conference declaration condemning Isis. In reality she had asked for a motion to be reworded because she felt its original phrasing could be used to target Muslims generally. The amended version was later accepted. But in raising a concern about language that Muslim students felt uncomfortable with, she was branded a terrorist sympathiser.
In reaction to claims of being anti-Semitic Bouattia has said: “I am deeply concerned that my faith and political views are being misconstrued and used as an opportunity to falsely accuse me of anti-Semitism, despite my work and dedication to liberation, equality and inclusion saying otherwise.”
“Jews have faced horrendous persecution over thousands of years and Jewish students on campuses and elsewhere continue to face anti-Semitism. Our movement knows this, and will stand alongside them.”
A frequent critic of the “colonisation” of curriculum at British universities and the white-centred focus of literature and history, the Constantine born young woman and her family fled during the bloodshed of the Algerian civil war when Bouattia was seven.
“My dad was almost killed when a bomb was planted in his lecture theatre,” she said in her election speech. “One week earlier, I sat petrified under my primary school desk as terrorists rained gunfire on our teachers.”
One of her most popular manifesto pledges, echoed by many other candidates, is to campaign to repeal the Counter-Terror and Security Act, which makes referring students to Prevent, the government’s anti-extremism programme, a statutory duty.
The mounting anger caused by the election of controversial new president, Malia Bouattia has led to campaigns being launched this week across the country persuade students to opt-out of their national union.
Students at Durham, Edinburgh, Westminster, Aberystwyth, Manchester, York, Exeter, London South Bank, Oxford and Cambridge are all reportedly plotting campaigns to disaffiliate.
The National Union of Students could face a funding crisis if growing efforts to cut ties with the organisation are successful through a loss of membership fees and commercial revenues.
A typical large university union pays around £50,000 a year to be a member of the NUS, and the national union profits from access to their students.
Affiliation fees account for 20% of its revenue, according to the latest NUS accounts and last year the union had an income of £19.9m.
In her conference speech, Bouattia denied she was the person depicted in media reports. “I know many of you will have seen my name dragged through the mud by rightwing media, and might think I am a terrorist and my politics driven by hate,” she said. “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 and was forced into exile.”
Whilst the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) had previously said Jewish students were “rightly outraged” to see a candidate for NUS president who sees their Jewish societies as “a threat, now that she has been elected national president, the UJS has said it is proud of its long history and long standing positive relationship with the NUS, and hopes “that relationship will be able to continue”.
Bouattia, who will not become president formally until July, has pledged to meet with the students who oppose her so vehemently and said she is planning to keep a low profile until her term begins.
Malia Bouattia said: “I am so proud to be elected as NUS’ first Black woman president and I look forward to the year ahead. I know the students have huge transformative potential when we come together and put liberation at the heart of our work. From cuts to maintenance grants, college closures, the Black attainment gap and the Prevent agenda, the number of voices and groups being silenced by this government grows by day. In the face of these attacks, I promise to unify, strengthen and lead our movement.”