LONDON — Even by the standards of British student politics, the campus-wide vote due to take place from October 24-31 at the University of Manchester is most questionable and controversial.
The proposal being put to vote is to renew the university student union’s twinning partnership with An-Najah National University in Nablus, a place called by Hamas “a greenhouse for martyrs.”
According to Jewish watchdog organization the Anti-Defamation League, “the student council of An-Najah is known for its advocacy of anti-Israel violence and its recruitment of Palestinian college students into terrorist groups. The council, almost completely controlled by factions loyal to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, glorifies suicide bombings and propagandizes for jihad against Israel.”
Unsurprisingly, students connected with Manchester’s Jewish society oppose the motion.
In London’s Jewish News, James Graham wrote that he and other Jewish students supported the proposal’s motion to bring a student from a Palestinian university to study in Manchester.
“What we as a J-Soc [Jewish student union] were opposed to is the twinning with An-Najah, an institution with links to Hamas and that has publicly called for the annihilation of the Jewish people. Instead we were in favor of a three-way relationship between Manchester, an Israeli university and an alternative Palestinian one,” Graham wrote.
The commencement of the new university year in Britain on the back of the worst summer for anti-Semitic incidences since the Community Security Trust (CST) began documenting them 30 years ago was always going to present challenges to Jewish students. As Ella Rose, president of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), recently told The Times of Israel, “campus is a microcosm, so what you see in our communities is often reflected on campus.”
What is witnessed in wider society is not reflected proportionally on campus, but rather boiled down and concentrated
But more often when it comes to the question of Israel, university campuses are not a microcosm but an exaggeration: What is witnessed in wider society is not reflected proportionally on campus, but rather boiled down and concentrated. Organized student politics, as a result, can appear radical or extreme on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The current campus clashes began, in fact, before students returned to classes in late September and early October. In early August, during Operation Protective Edge, the National Executive Committee of the National Union of Students (NUS) voted in favor of a motion to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
The NUS – a national confederation of 600 student unions in Britain representing the interests of more than seven million students – backed 23 votes to 18 to commit itself to “ensuring that, as far as is practical, NUS does not employ or work with companies identified as facilitating Israel’s military capacity, human rights abuses or illegal settlement activity, and to actively work to cut ties with those that do,” a spokesperson said at the time.
But the motion went further than that. Support for BDS was tagged to a motion which condemned “Israel’s attacks on Gaza” and “the collective punishment and killing in Gaza,” and backed calls to lift the blockade on the Strip. It also beseeched the British government to cease aid and funding to Israel and impose an arms embargo against Israel, according to Cherwell, a student newspaper of Oxford University.
This would not be in the NUS’ only intervention in the Middle East. Earlier this month, the National Executive Committee blocked a motion to “condemn the IS and support the Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention” and “campaign in solidarity with the Iraqi people and in particular support the hard-pressed student, workers’ and women’s organizations against all the competing nationalist and religious-right forces.”
Principal opposition within the NUS came from Malia Bouattia, Black Students Officer.
She said, “We recognize that condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia” (despite the fact that the motion explicitly speaks against Western intervention). “This rhetoric exacerbates the issue at hand and in essence is a further attack on those we aim to defend,” she continued.
No Holocaust Memorial Day for Goldsmiths, U. of London
Decisions such as these — condemning Israel, but not Islamic extremists — have set a tone for political activity in other students’ unions across the country. At Goldsmiths, University of London, the students’ union voted down a motion to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, among other anniversaries of genocides and atrocities in Europe, including the Armenian genocide. The motion read in part:
The Student Union recognizes the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, of the other genocides, of totalitarianism and racial hatred. It further recognizes that commemorating the victims of genocide, racial hatred and totalitarianism, and promoting public awareness of these crimes against humanity, is essential to sustaining and defending democratic culture and civil society, especially in the face of a resurgence of neo-fascism, racial hatred and neo-Stalinism across Europe.
Sarah El-alfy, Goldsmiths’ education officer, led the opposition to the motion. She said later in a statement published on Twitter that, “It is Eurocentric and pro-British-colonialist if only four specific dates are mentioned, where all are European history and don’t even extend to those atrocities committed by Britain itself.” She said that Goldsmiths would be “symbolically giving some struggles more importance than others.”
The Union of Jewish Students said in a statement that it sees Holocaust commemoration as “a significant way to remember a unique episode in history. Not only is it important to remember the unprecedented genocide of Jewish people that took place, but it is also a time to remember all fallen civilians and victims of genocides.”
The UJS said it understands opposition stems from the focusing on too few genocides, but “for UJS and Goldsmiths J-Soc, it is the debate and comments from SU representatives online that took place around the motion that were concerning.”
Holocaust commemoration in a safe space should be a given. “To oppose this policy in its entirety is both worrying for Jewish students and could lead to many feeling isolated from their union,” said UJS.
Meanwhile at Cambridge…
At the University of Cambridge, a collective of doctors and professors put their names to a September 28 statement which demanded an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip and “a more far-reaching justice for the Palestinian people, including the displaced refugees.” This change, they argued, “without an end to the violence perpetrated by the State of Israel against Palestinians, an end to the siege of Gaza and to the occupation, and an end to the discriminatory and dehumanizing treatment of Palestinian citizens within Israel.”
Students at the university connected to the Israel Society issued a counter-letter, condemning the academics for “demonstrating a severe lack of nuance surrounding the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for issuing an un-academic statement that achieves little save establishing the desire to discriminate against a sole nationality.”
The original letter, however, asserted that Israel “singles itself out” for criticism “through its claims to moral impeccability, its celebrated status as a democracy, through its receipt of massive support from the US and other nations, and through its abuse of the memory of the Holocaust in order to deflect criticism and to discredit the Palestinian struggle.”
Joshua Gertner, co-president of Cambridge’s Israel Society and one of the authors of the counter-letter, told The Times of Israel, “This eye-opening letter from the student body rightly highlights the lack of nuance from these Cambridge academics in their strikingly un-academic torrent of criticism leveled at Israel. It was very important to send a strong message that their unhelpful and misguided sentiment is not blindly accepted by their students.”
Identity politics 101
In explaining this raft of extremely politicized decisions by the NUS and other students’ unions, Daniel Cooper – one of the co-sponsors of the motion to condemn ISIS – argued that “there is a stranglehold of ‘identity politics’ on the student movement.” He added that “the idea is widespread that if a Liberation Officer opposes something, it must be bad.”
This attitude, Cooper said, was a factor in the discussion over ISIS, that “because people see or claim to see debate on the Middle East as something that the BSO should somehow have veto power over, regardless of the issues and the arguments made.”
Cooper also argued that on the National Executive Committee of the NUS, “there seems to be a low level of political education and even engagement.” Some “appear not to research issues, work out what they think, engage and take ideas forward. Instead, some are not very interested and vote on basis of who they want to ally with.
“In other words, many people who voted against didn’t to care about is happening in Iraq,” said Cooper.