Rabbi Leah Jordan
21 April 2016
With her history of commitment to anti-racism activism, the election of Malia Bouattia as the first black Muslim woman president of the NUS is exciting for what it represents for liberation politics in the student movement.
Liberal Judaism, and the Jewish students I work with around the country as a Progressive Jewish chaplain, share many of her passions.
However, those same students are disturbed by Bouattia’s language over the past few years.
Reports in The Tab and Daily Telegraph, quote her speaking of “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets,” “Zionist outposts” and “all manner of Zionist and neo-con lobbies”. These are all classic anti-Semitic tropes.
When asked about these concerns in an open letter from 57 Jewish Society Presidents, Bouattia’s letter in reply was not as understanding or comprehensive a response as one would hope. On my reading, it felt slightly dismissive and defensive.
Of course, neither anti-Zionist nor anti-Israel views are inherently anti-Semitic.
However, in speaking about the just liberation struggle of one people, Palestinians, Bouattia must confront the fact that in the view of many Jewish students some of her language unfortunately reads as a dog-whistle to anti-Semites.
As someone so impressively invested in inclusion, equality, and liberation, Bouattia must work to understand how age-old racist tropes about Jews are a danger to Jewish students, one of the many student minorities she now represents.
I would hope that her past choices in wording reflect an ignorance of the history of anti-Semitism in left-wing activism, rather than racist intent.
By that same token, I also hope that other students’ lack of solidarity regarding Jewish students’ concerns about Bouattia’s candidacy also stem from this place of ignorance.
I would direct her and anyone else involved in liberation politics or radical, progressive social justice movements to the excellent “the past didn’t go anywhere: making resistance to antisemitism part of all of our movements” as a primer. It can be read at here.
As the Progressive Jewish chaplain for Jewish students, I invite President Bouattia to meet with me and other Jewish student leaders further, so we can share our perspectives and hear her self-reflective and robust responses to these concerns – and I look forward to working together with her for a strong, transformative student movement.
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