Following the publication of an Al Jazeera article questioning whether anti-Israel sentiment is being silenced at universities, student groups speak out
In an article published by Al Jazeera titled ‘Are British Universities silencing critics of Israel?’, the University of Manchester was put under increased scrutiny as the focus of limitations and restrictions to the controversial Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) events in support of the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) motion recently passed by the Students’ Union.
Huda Ammori, student and lead activist of the BDS movement at the university, told Al Jazeera that, “The university has heavily scrutinised every single detail of each event… the number of conditions the university has placed on us is unheard of,” alleging that “other societies and groups do not face the same problems”.
The university, on the other hand, emphasised that organisational problems and late applications were the reason behind limiting the IAW events. A spokesperson told Al Jazeera “for the event scheduled in February, the application was received the day before it was due to happen”, with 14 days being the standard requirement for approval.
“Events held on campus are reviewed under the Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech if they concern potentially controversial topics and whenever they involve external speakers.”
The Students’ Union and BDS campaign jointly released a statement acknowledging that “human error” led to the delaying of the event.
According to Al Jazeera, Professor Banko responded to this decision, stating that: “The university is creating a very worrying precedent when it declares an academic who happens to be a historian of pre-1948 Palestine as not ‘suitable’ for the role of chairing a student-organised event on Palestine and the Israeli occupation.”
Although the article was focused on the University of Manchester, the title suggested that this was a pattern among British universities. On 27th of February, citing the shutdown of an event called ‘Debunking misconceptions on Palestine’ which supposedly “contravened the definition of anti-Semitism recently adopted by the government” at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) as one of many examples, a letter in The Guardian signed by 243 academics claimed that “these are outrageous interferences with free expression, and are direct attacks on academic freedom.
“As academics with positions at UK universities, we wish to express our dismay at this attempt to silence campus discussion about Israel, including its violation of the rights of Palestinians for more than 50 years. It is with disbelief that we witness explicit political interference in university affairs in the interests of Israel under the thin disguise of concern about antisemitism.”
After the University of Manchester’s controversial IAW events, the Jewish student community of the University has responded to the event and BDS movement as a whole. A Jewish student who attended the events expressed their opinion on the regulations and restrictions imposed on these events, saying: “The University of Manchester, like other universities in the UK, silences pro-Palestinian and other anti-racist voices by constant accusations of racism. These accusations attempt to suppress the Palestinian solidarity movement [which] reveals the university’s disregard for human rights.”
As the main reason these events came under so much scrutiny was accusations of anti-Semitism, we contacted the University of Manchester’s Jewish Society (JSoc), and received the following statement: “The JSoc caters for all Jewish students, and therefore houses a wide range of views on Israel. One thing the JSoc does unify on is our commitment to respect and free speech on campus. Some members of our JSoc may oppose BDS and Israeli Apartheid Week but we respect the right of various groups to protest and support their cause and we hope to receive the same treatment. The disruption to Wednesday’s event was not in connection with the Jewish Society.”
A number of Jewish students and groups supporting the cause share this sentiment. Boycott From Within, a Jewish organisation that supports the BDS movement, said: “The current BDS campaign is based on the one waged decades ago to end apartheid in South Africa. Pro-Israel groups claim to speak on behalf of all Jewish students, yet many Jewish and Israeli students are supporters of BDS in the UK and in the US.”
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, Secretary of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG) stated: “Boycotts are peaceful tactics often used by the weak against the powerful. We understand the Palestinian boycott, mobilising support worldwide in order to achieve freedom, justice and equality, to be just as legitimate as the boycott which helped to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. This campaign is no threat to us as Jews. Our identity is not tied to a particular nation state, nor to a particular ideology. In fact, it is anti-semitic to suggest that it should be!”
She added: “Demanding that speakers must acknowledge the British government-endorsed definition of antisemitism as a condition for meetings on campus to go ahead is a terrifying, McCarthyite development. We agree 100% with the letter in The Guardian last week from academics protesting against the shutting down of pro-Palestinian activities in universities.”
In recent news from the UN, a report released accuses Israel of having established “an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole” and urged governments to “support boycott, divestment and sanctions activities and respond positively to calls for such initiatives”.
However after both Israel and the United States denounced the report, the secretary general of the UN disassociated himself from the report.