University of Manchester Students’ Union recently passed a policy in support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign. The average student may know that this is controversial, but they may not know why. So what is BDS? The BDS movement, modelled in part on the successful campaign against apartheid South Africa, is a call from 170 Palestinian civil society organisations to boycott, divest and sanction the Israeli government, and all Israeli companies and institutions that are complicit in the violence, oppression, and military occupation faced by the Palestinian people.
The three aims of the international BDS movement are: (a) for Palestinians across the world to be given the right to return to their homeland; (b) to end the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine and to reinstate the pre-1967 Israeli borders; and (c) to abolish the 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens in Israel.
On the 8 of December 2016, the senate of our Students’ Union, the largest in the UK, passed a motion in support of BDS. The motion won the support of 60 per cent of the SU senate. The senate is democratically elected by students, and therefore this motion demonstrates a strong student support for the BDS movement at the university.
So what does BDS look like in the context of our university? Well, the BDS campaign at the University of Manchester is demanding that the university complies with its own socially-responsible investment policy, which states that it will end any links or contracts with companies and institutions that are complicit in human rights abuses or have ties with the arms trade. Currently, their investments include a £820,133 stake in Caterpillar — who manufacture the armoured bulldozers that have been used to destroy more than 25,000 Palestinian homes in order to build illegal Israeli settlements. By investing in companies like Caterpillar, the university is investing in systematic ethnic cleansing — we should demand that they divest.
Palestinians living in Gaza have faced a decade (and counting) of blockades, they are being stripped of their civil liberties and their basic human rights. They have limited access to water, medicine and electricity, and they have little to no freedom of movement. They are placed in what has been referred to by David Cameron as the largest open air prison in the world. Newborn Palestinian babies are dying at checkpoints controlled by Israeli soldiers within the occupied territories, under the longest illegal military regime in modern history.
Importantly, BDS does not target Israeli individuals. BDS targets only the Israeli government, and any Israeli organisations that are complicit in the brutal military occupation of Palestine, by funding or conducting weapons research and production, or contributing in any other way to the violence. Under UN Resolution 242, the occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal; BDS only wants the Israeli government to adhere to international law.
Opponents of BDS often highlight that boycotting the Israeli government and Israeli corporations and institutions would damage the economy, thus affecting the average Israeli. While this is true, it is important to remember that, first, there are many average Israelis, from organisations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, that support BDS knowing fully that the economy will be affected but are willing to make the sacrifice; and second, that it is the Israeli government that should be held accountable for the economic repercussions of the BDS campaign, because they have given activists no other choice but to pressure the state in this way.
The Oslo Accords were signed over 20 years ago, but the violent occupation of Palestine continues. Diplomacy has failed, but BDS is still a peaceful, non-violent tactic. It is up to the Israeli government to heal any damage caused to the economy as a result of BDS by complying with international law and the universal principles of human rights, and ending the occupation of Palestine.
During our campaign, BDS activists at the University of Manchester have been accused of making Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. However, there is no evidence of any anti-Semitic harassment being committed. Importantly, the Home Affairs Select Committee, in its 2016-2017 report on anti-Semitism in the UK, states that “it is not anti-Semitic to criticise the Government of Israel”, to “hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions […] without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent.”
BDS campaigners take anti-Semitism very seriously, as we stand against all forms of discrimination against all peoples. But the Community Security Trust reported in 2016 that most anti-Semitic abuse comes from the far Right; anti-Semitism is a very real issue that should be battled at every turn, but it is important that instead of accusing human rights activists such as BDS campaigners, we direct our attention to the real perpetrators.
Students at the University of Manchester have shown, through passing this policy in support of BDS, that they stand for peace, justice and equality. We are listening to the call from Palestinian Civil Society for the international community to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, and we will continue to fight until every Students’ Union and university in the country endorses BDS. Every win is another step closer to ending the illegal occupation and war crimes committed by Israel; if our government will not support Palestine, then we will make sure that the people do. Justice will win.