The start of a new academic year can be an unnerving experience at the best of times. New modules. Different seminar groups. If you’re a Fresher then it could be your first extended time away from home apart from your support network of family and friends.
Worry not though as it isn’t all doom and gloom. Universities anticipate all of this, so there are many layers of pastoral care to make sure all your needs are catered for. The largest and arguably the most powerful of all of these is the NUS, the students’ own national union to make sure that they never feel unprotected and to let their collective voices be heard loudly in national debate.
In order to achieve their goal to ‘make sure all students thrive’ the NUS obviously relies on publicity to make sure they’re known outside of the student bubble among decision-makers. This could explain why their infamous national President Malia Bouattia recently defended the scandal she was embroiled in earlier this year by stating the headlines helped open up new opportunities for the organisation.
For those who have forgotten, Malia is not talking about a minor slip up which caused embarrassment, but what I believe were blatantly antisemitic remarks she initially refused to apologise for. Amongst them were the accusation that the University of Birmingham is a ‘Zionist outpost’ due to its large Jewish student population and that she has a problem with ‘Zionist politics’; so I guess what the NUS really means is “helping all students thrive unless you are Jewish or Israeli”.
Although unforgiveable, her comments could have been put down to ignorance and consigned to the past if she had shown genuine remorse, but instead a statement was rushed out putting them down to a misinterpretation. Maybe she thought this was an attempt at Jewish students playing the victim game, but nevertheless UJS extended an olive branch to help her see life from a Jewish perspective. A life where unfortunately antisemitism is seen as an inevitability rather than an unlucky occurrence and where the way Israel is often debated on campus leaves many Jewish students very uncomfortable, especially as for the majority of Jewish students, Israel is central to their Jewish identity. I know from first-hand experience that antisemitism is a real problem on campus, as I myself have been confronted by strangers saying “I don’t like you, you’re a Jew” simply for wearing a kippah and I consider myself to have escaped lightly compared to my friends.
So what is next for the thousands of Jewish and Israeli students across the country? Josh Nagli of UJS expressed the opinion of many when he said, “If her vision of the future is one where Jewish students are made to feel intimidated by the things their national president says – and where their oppression is used as a wave to ride on and not taken seriously – then it is a future that I, and I’m sure many, don’t want to be part of”. It seems in the 21st century, an age of enlightenment, understanding and accepting the road left for us is increasing isolationism. When the path to understanding and acceptance should be coexistence and cooperation we are having the doors shut on us, making what should be the best years of our life potentially the worst.
A small consolation is that our support network is strong; I have made some amazing friends through UJS and have experienced nothing but kindness from groups such as We Believe in Israel, but if we are to stamp out the ignorant rhetoric of the likes of Malia Bouattia, then we are going to have to take a leaf out of her book. She is right in one respect, there is nothing better than publicity so let us show her how it is done. If you are moving in with new flatmates this month then show them how vibrant Jewish and Israeli life is, do not shy away from calling yourself a Zionist, and explaining what that means, show them all the fantastic things from Israel we simply take for granted and most importantly show them what we already know: there is no difference between us and them.