Israeli-Palestinian conflict moves to UK campus

Student leaders at prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies press for a severance of Israel university ties.

United Kingdom
London's prestigious SOAS is divided over a possible boycott of Israeli universities [Simon Hooper/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – Student leaders at the UK’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) are set to call on the university to cut its academic links with Israeli institutions in a show of support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

SOAS student union officials will make their case at a meeting of the school’s governing body on Friday and will point to the result of a ballot of students, academics, and staff in February, in which 73 percent voted in favour of a boycott of Israeli universities.

“There has been no democratic mandate like this in the university’s history. The SOAS community has clearly demonstrated and they cannot ignore it,” Georgie Robertson, a co-president of the student union, which organised the referendum, told Al Jazeera.

Reputation of justice

But the issue has stirred up controversy and divisions on campus, with anti-BDS campaigners highlighting low turnout and making claims that they were subjected to harassment and intimidation during the campaign.

SOAS has a reputation of being supportive of justice and liberation struggles in general, so I would place this solidarity with the Palestinian cause in this context.

by Amira Nassim, Palestine Society

“I don’t think they were expecting the resistance it got,” Richard Galber, a law student who campaigned against BDS, told Al Jazeera.

“We never expected to win but in the end less than a third of people voted and we got 25 percent of the vote which, at SOAS of all places, I think is quite a victory.”

London-based SOAS is considered a world-leading institution for the study of Middle Eastern affairs, and is home to research centres for both Palestinian and Israeli studies.

Originally founded in 1916 to prepare British imperial officials bound for the colonies, in more recent times it has become better known for the activism and post-colonial outlook of both its students and lecturers.

“SOAS has a reputation of being supportive of justice and liberation struggles in general, so I would place this solidarity with the Palestinian cause in this context,” Amira Nassim, a postgraduate student in international law and the president of the Palestine Society, told Al Jazeera.

“The boycott campaign aims at pressuring Israeli institutions into withdrawing their support for human rights violations. It is also important to challenge Israel and to bring this discussion into academia.”

The great debate

Isolating Israeli universities from their international peers is a key goal of the BDS movement, which has been gaining ground among student bodies in the UK since Israel’s seven-week military campaign against Gaza in July and August last year.

Several student unions have passed motions to support BDS in recent months, and the National Union of Students last year voted to boycott companies supportive of Israel, although other student unions have debated and rejected similar measures.

SOAS’ student union has endorsed BDS since 2005. But a paper proposing the establishment of a working group to consider a formal boycott, to be presented by student officials on Friday, will highlight the school’s links with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Hebrew University, with whom SOAS has a student exchange programme, has been criticised for its ties to the Israeli military and for expanding onto illegally occupied land in East Jerusalem.

“Management’s position is that SOAS should not take political sides. Our argument is that it is political to have links with Hebrew University,” said Robertson.

Critics of implementing BDS argue that boycotting Israel is impracticable in the UK because of the legal, political and practical complexities of the issue.

They also say that banning ties with Israeli universities would damage the school’s reputation and its status as a world leader in Middle Eastern studies, as well as limiting freedom of expression and academic debate.

“If you are saying that any speaker coming from an Israeli institution is unwelcome at SOAS then that is very much an issue of freedom of speech because you are cutting off discourse,” said Galber.

‘Being complicit’

Pro-BDS campaigners stress a formal boycott would not exclude Israeli academics from being invited to SOAS in an individual capacity, and say they are committed to maintaining the quality and range of current research and teaching.

 People and Power – Boycott Israel

“We have colleagues in Israeli studies and we all respect them very much and it is very important that their voices are heard,” Nadje al-Ali, a professor of gender studies, told Al Jazeera.

“But we are in a situation where it is very difficult to come up with non-violent ways of resisting Israeli government policies. I think for many of us the turning point was Gaza last year. We felt that not doing anything was actually being complicit.”

Some opposed to BDS also express concerns about the aims of a movement which, in addition to seeking Israel’s withdrawal from illegally occupied territory and full rights for Palestinian-Israeli citizens, calls for Israel to recognise the rights of Palestinians to return to land and homes from which they were displaced in 1948.

Colin Shindler, an emeritus professor in Israeli studies, told Al Jazeera the goal of BDS was “anti-normalisation more than anti-occupation”.

“It seems to represent the rejectionist wing of Palestinian nationalism, which believes in a Greater Palestine and denies the possibility of a two-state solution. It is unclear whether the SOAS students accept that the Jews have a right to national self-determination,” Shindler wrote in an email.

But Ali described that argument as a “very unfortunate misrepresentation” and the beginning of “a very slippery slope”.

“I have not heard one single person at SOAS question the Jewish right to self-determination, but the Palestinians have a right to self-determination as well,” she said.

“We are not just living in an academic context, we are living in a political context and I think SOAS has a particular responsibility given its very nasty history of colonialism.”

Hostile environment 

Coverage of the result of February’s referendum in Israel’s media and in Jewish newspapers in the UK focused on allegations made by some opponents of BDS of an intimidating atmosphere on campus during the week of the vote, which coincided with events organised by the Palestine Society to mark “Israeli Apartheid Week”.

“It was a very hostile environment to the point that we didn’t want to go into the student union common room. It just felt very threatening. That shouldn’t happen at SOAS. If anything, people go to SOAS because they want to be free to express their opinions,” Moselle Paz Solis, an undergraduate studying law and the president of the Jewish Society, told Al Jazeera.

Paz Solis said she had subsequently been contacted by some prospective students who told her they had decided not to apply to SOAS because of concerns about the student union.

“A girl who was thinking of coming told me she planned to go elsewhere because of what is happening. She saw there was little support in the student union for students who do not abide by their views.

“For Jewish students especially, it is very sad when I hear that most students now are not even considering SOAS. It was difficult before, but now even more so.”

But Nassim said similar complaints about intimidation had also been expressed by those in favour of a boycott about some of their opponents. And she said many Jewish students had actively campaigned in support of BDS.

Robertson said the student union had facilitated a “safe and inclusive environment” in which BDS could be debated, and had given equal space to both campaigns. She said students who experienced harassment or intimidation had been encouraged to complain to either the union or to school officials.

Israel's attack on Gaza spurred on many to join the boycott movement [Getty Images]
Israel’s attack on Gaza spurred on many to join the boycott movement [Getty Images]

“The union has a zero-tolerance stance on bullying, harassment and discrimination. Complaints were received from both the ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ sides, and all complaints were dealt with in accordance to our complaints procedure,” she said.

Campaigners on both sides said they were hopeful the governing body, which is independent of SOAS’ management and responsible for setting the general direction of the school, would listen to their arguments.

Paz said it would be “patently foolish” for SOAS to endorse BDS, while Shindler said he believed the governing body would adopt a position that was “neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine, but pro-academic discourse”.

Supporters of BDS conceded there were further hurdles to be overcome, but said SOAS could lead the way by exploring practical steps that universities could take, such as divestment from companies with links to Israel, and stronger ties with Palestinian counterparts.

“Our hope is that SOAS will recognise the will of the community,” said Nassim. “But we will keep campaigning and pushing forward. This step is a challenging one, but I think it is a matter of time.”

Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper

Source: Al Jazeera