UK students face disciplinary action over BDS protest

Dozens of academics sign letter condemning the University of Manchester for action against pro-Palestinian activists.

University of Manchester
More than 40 academics from Manchester have backed the students' right to protest [Al Jazeera]

Academics at a British university have condemned ongoing disciplinary action against two students accused of unfurling a banner in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS).

The banner, which was dropped from the student union building at the University of Manchester earlier in March, read “Stop Arming Israel” and was targeted at the institution’s ties to companies involved in producing equipment for the Israeli army.

In the letter published on Monday, 44 academics in Manchester, backed by their trade unions, said the university should “applaud” the students’ activism instead of punishing them.

The academics also criticised the university’s ties to Caterpillar, which produces bulldozers used by the Israeli army to destroy homes belonging to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“The students drew attention to the University of Manchester’s contravention of its own Policy for Socially Responsible Investment in investing in companies, such as Caterpillar,” the statement read.

“Such investments and collaborations by the University lend credibility and infrastructural support to Israel’s occupation,” it added.

READ MORE: Are British universities silencing critics of Israel?

University of Manchester professor Mona Baker, one of the signatories of the letter, told Al Jazeera the institution’s actions were inconsistent with its ethical responsibilities.

“The [university] cannot pretend to be a caring institution with a sense of social responsibility while investing in the Israeli apartheid regime and threatening students with disciplinary measures for merely engaging in peaceful action against the continued repression of Palestinians,” she said.

The two students at the centre of the action said they did not want to disclose their names pending the outcome of the disciplinary measure, which is due next week.

In a statement, they accused the university of censoring pro-Palestinian activism.

“Not only is the university’s action here hypocritical and unjust but it shows there is at stake something far more fundamental – our democratic right to protest and express ourselves freely on issues of our concern,” it said.

A university spokesperson would not comment on “internal student conduct” matters, but added: “The University recognises that freedom of speech and expression within the law is of fundamental importance for universities, and has facilitated several events recently around this issue.”

Accusations of censorship

The move by the university is the latest in an ongoing controversy over the place of Palestinian activism on British campuses.

Manchester was one of several institutions accused of censoring events organised by Palestinian activists by either vetoing speakers or cancelling events outright. 

It is extremely important to offer solidarity to students who are active in the BDS movement at this time, as they are being targeted across UK campuses and not just in Manchester.

by Mona Baker, professor, University of Manchester

Baker said the issue was more widespread than just Manchester.

“It is extremely important to offer solidarity to students who are active in the BDS movement at this time, as they are being targeted across UK campuses and not just in Manchester.”

The University of Manchester Students’ Union, one of the largest in the UK, passed a motion backing BDS in December.

Just last week, the students union at Queens University in Belfast, the largest in Northern Ireland, passed a similar motion.

Huda Ammori, a prominent pro-Palestinian activist in Manchester, said she and other campaigners would not be put off by any perceived censorship.

“Pro-Palestinian students in the UK, we face continuous obstacles, but we will continue to fight until Palestinians are given basic human rights,” she said.

“The university community, including students, academics and trade unions, has united for freedom of speech: an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

University of Manchester Students' Union is one of the largest in Europe [Al Jazeera]
University of Manchester Students’ Union is one of the largest in Europe [Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera