Between the 23rd and 27th of February, students and staff at SOAS, University of London took to the ballot box in a school wide referendum which asked “should SOAS join the BDS call for an academic boycott of Israeli universities?”.
SOAS currently has formal links with the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, which has strong ties to the Israeli military, this was clearly demonstrated during last years Gaza conflict when HU campaigned for scholarships donations for students fighting in the Israel Defense Force. An academic boycott would see SOAS end all institutional links with the Hebrew University and refrain from academic cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with this and other Israeli institutions. Supporting the referendum therefore entails supporting the boycott of institutions, not individuals: under the boycott Israeli academics would still be able to work with SOAS academics in their individual capacity, just not as official representatives of Israeli universities.
The referendum, which was open to all members of the SOAS community including students, academics, non-academic staff, University Governors as well as outsourced workers such as cleaners, security and catering enjoyed wide spread engagement within the University. No easy task considering SOAS represents one of the most diverse student bodies in the UK with over 5000 students and staff of multi-faith backgrounds from over 133 countries. After weeks of fierce campaigning from both Yes and No campaigns a total of 2056 individuals voted in the referendum of which a resounding 73% voted in favor of supporting the boycott (just 27% voted against). While the number of votes cast is less than half the entire student body, the turnout was significantly higher than any previous Students’ Union referendum or election, emphasizing the importance of the vote and the high level of engagement with the referendum process.
The referendum, which was organized by the Students’ Union and supported by on campus trade unions, UCU and UNISON, was one of the first such referenda to be held at a UK university and represents the growing appeal of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement within the British University sector. Since last summers Gaza conflict in which over 2100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air strikes BDS has successfully reasserted itself as a powerful form of protest and resistance against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians. As such we are now witnessing a new wave of grassroots activism throughout Europe on campuses such as SOAS that seeks to directly challenge the normalization of Zionism and the oppression of Palestinian people within mainstream discourse. At the national level we have also witnessed an increase in support for the BDS movement with the UK National Union of Students also voting to support BDS in August 2014. After this latest victory for the BDS movement at SOAS it seems likely that many other institutions and groups both here in the UK and abroad will likely follow suit in the coming months.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the result of the referendum at SOAS quickly drew condemnation from some Zionist media, academics, and organizations both in the UK and in Israel. Most claim that the referendum represents an attack on free speech and an ever-increasing rise in anti-Semitism at British universities and should therefore not have been allowed to have taken place. In an attempt to undermine and discredit the result these same groups have challenged the right of the SOAS community to hold this referendum, even threatening legal action, and claim that it has fuelled intimidation and anti-Semitism. These claims ignore the fact that many Jewish students supported the boycott and actively participated in the campaign in favour of the Yes vote.
This is not the first time we have witnessed student unions in the UK being intimidated by Zionist lobbies, representing a greater trend of intimidation aimed ant any person or group who speaks out against Israeli atrocities. A pattern has now emerged in which anyone who seeks to challenge Israel’s atrocities and its occupation of the West Bank is quickly portrayed as anti-Semitic. The BDS movement has regularly found itself subject to such accusations despite academic consensus arguing the contrary and the fact that the BDS campaign denounces all forms of racism. This means that as legitimate, political opposition to Zionism and the atrocities committed by the Israeli state begin to build momentum, Zionist organisations attempt to delegitimise these successes through accusations of anti-Semitism.
Zionism is a political ideology that necessitates occupation of Palestinian land and the displacement and continued oppression of the Palestinian people. Claims that criticisms of Israeli state atrocities and Zionist ideology represent anti-Semitism portray the policies of the Israeli government as representative of all Jewish peoples and Judaism itself, rather than Zionism being the political project of a nation-state. This disregards the diversity of opinion among Jewish communities around the world, with many Jewish people both historically and presently opposing Zionism and Israeli government policy. It is extremely dangerous and disingenuous to conflate racism with legitimate political opposition to the ideology and policies of a nation-state. At a time when there is rising anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia and general intolerance of “others” across Europe it is vital that we oppose and dismantle these prejudices where they actually exist, as opposed to where they clearly do not.
So, why do external groups care so much about a referendum held at a small and specialist British university with a reputation of being pro-Palestine? The truth is that these groups realize the significance of this vote and of the real power and support behind the BDS movement. They are afraid, not by the vote at SOAS itself (which is not legally binding upon the university) but rather by the statement it sends to the rest of the world. SOAS is the first university in Europe to support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions setting a precedent, which other institutions will surely follow in the coming months. The referendum result at SOAS has therefore effectively opened a new front line of the anti-Zionist struggle in the UK, demonstrating how grassroots activism can put very real pressure on public institutions to implement the boycott.
There is now a battle to ensure the legitimacy of this vote is recognized for what it is – a victory for free speech, expression, anti-Zionism, for Palestine and for BDS. The referendum has successfully put Palestine at the center of the debate within the university sector and in doing so has helped galvanized support for the free Palestine movement. SOAS voting in favour of an academic boycott of Israel is evidence that people are increasingly angered by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, of is displacement of Bedouins in the Negev desert and of it’s indiscriminate blockade and bombing of Gaza. It is this which makes the referendum at SOAS so important and it is for this reason that external groups as far away as Israel itself are doing all in their power to delegitimize it under the guise of anti-Semitism. Through delegitimizing the vote at SOAS and threatening to pursue legal action these groups seeks to stifle any political dissent against Israeli atrocities and thus guarantee the State’s impunity from international scrutiny. Through conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism these groups are attempting to undermine such forms of grassroots activism, intimidate those involved, stifle political debate and thereby facilitate Israel’s continued expansion into the West Bank and oppression of the Palestinian people.