Oxford students overwhelmingly vote down Israel boycott

Jewish groups hail 69-10 tally, but motion will still likely appear on agenda at national student union confab next month

Oxford students voting Wednesday evening. (photo credit: courtesy Eylan Aslan-Levy)
Oxford students voting Wednesday evening. (photo credit: courtesy Eylan Aslan-Levy)

LONDON – The Oxford University Student Union voted decisively Wednesday night to reject a motion backing a boycott of Israel, by a margin of 7:1.

The final vote showed 69 against, 10 in favor and 15 abstentions.

Had it passed, the motion would have committed the student union to advocate for a Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign at the annual conference of the National Union of Students, the umbrella body for student unions at UK universities, which takes place in March.

It would not have committed the university itself, or its students, to implementing a boycott.

Despite the success at Oxford, it seems likely that a BDS motion will still be on the agenda of the NUS conference next month. Oxford students told The Times of Israel that an identical motion was distributed by the BDS movement to other universities, although it is unclear how many are going to debate it.

The Oxford result, meanwhile, was welcomed by Israel supporters. A spokesman at the Israeli Embassy said that “there is no doubt that it was a crushing answer to a delusional suggestion that deserved to be binned. At the same time, it is still amazing that there were found even 10 strange people in Oxford who think there is a place for boycotts and 15 confused people who are still hesitant on the subject.”

The Union of Jewish Students said that it was “delighted to see that students took the decision to constructively engage with Israel, its ideas and people, rather than choosing to boycott.”

According to UJS Campaigns Director Judith Flacks, “It’s encouraging to see that this vote reflects a student body who are willing to discuss the complexities that exist within Israel and do not see boycotting it as a viable option or avenue to discuss the conflict.”

One Oxford student who had campaigned against the motion described the atmosphere on campus as “tense” in the run-up to the vote, which individual college student unions (known as “common rooms”) had two weeks to consider.

Henry Watson, a third-year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at Magdalen College, said that the motion’s sponsors had initially presented their agenda as “pro-peace, while Israel was against peace, and that this would try and get peace through placing economic pressure on Israel.”

As the motion was discussed by the common rooms, he said, students found out that the motion would also have promoted an academic boycott, that the BDS movement “was against the two-state solution” and that the movement’s founder, Omar Barghouti, had made “racist remarks.”

As a result, opposition grew, particularly after Member of Parliament George Galloway walked out of a student debate on Israel last week after discovering that his opponent, Eylon Aslan-Levy, was Israeli.

“People were saying that if this was an argument over whether we should affiliate with a movement that was misogynistic or homophobic, we wouldn’t have been discussing it for two weeks,” he said.

On Wednesday night, the motion went straight to a vote without a debate as the delegates were bound by the decision of their common rooms over which way to vote.

The motion declared that the OUSU and the NUS “have a moral responsibility to fight injustice”, demanded that Israel “end its occupation of all Arab lands” and called on the union to “conduct research into higher education institutions’ contacts, relations, investment and commercial relationships that may be implicated in violating Palestinian human rights as stated by the BDS movement.”

Aslan-Levy, who was also present at the vote Wednesday night, said he hoped that other British universities would follow Oxford in voting down BDS measures.

“Tonight Oxford students showed that their commitment to intellectual freedom is unshakeable. In rejecting calls for a boycott against Israel by a seven-to-one margin, we demonstrated resoundingly that we want Oxford to continue to cooperate with Israeli academics, trade with Israeli businesses and — yes — debate with Israeli debating societies,” he said.

He told The Times of Israel that students had been puzzled about why they were being asked to support a motion promoting an academic boycott.

“Students don’t think the role of a student union is to be making foreign policy,” he said. “They were confused why they were asked to embrace a boycott of Israeli universities – they were confused about the point. There was a strong belief that such motions are divisive.”

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