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3rd March 2017

Tensions at controversial Israeli Apartheid Week

With a large wall constructed on Oxford Road, a banner unfurled on university property, and disruption of a debate, IAW at the University of Manchester was controversial and eventful

Events and protests organised for the 13th annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) by Action Palestine saw interruptions and opposition from local pro-Israel organisations.

The week, which takes place annually between the 28th of February and the 6th of March across Universities in the UK “seeks to raise awareness of Israel’s settler-colonial project and apartheid system over the Palestinian people and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement” according to organisers.

Support for BDS was passed by University of Manchester Students’ Union last term, despite Jewish students standing up in senate to express fears over their safety on campus.

On Wednesday, one of the IAW events on campus, ‘Meet the Freedom Fighters’ was disrupted by non-student attendees who were suspected to be from the ‘Friends of Israel’ group.

A student attendee, who chose to remain anonymous, recounted the event to us: “Throughout the speeches there was constant muttering, and this persisted despite the requests of organisers and speakers. Towards the end of the third speech, several people began filming on their mobile phones, which Riya [the speaker] objected to (there was already an audio recording for the entire event). One international student who spoke out about being recorded was told by one of the men to ‘learn English before you tell me what to do’.”

After questions were read out and responded to by one of the speakers, a man from the group allegedly accused the speaker of being racist and anti-Semitic. “Amidst the shouting, I heard several rude comments such as ‘Mr Africa, you’re a disgrace to your country’ and ‘why don’t you talk about them lot raping and stabbing everyone?’.”

University and Union staff then called the event to a close, and “most of the party then left the lecture theatre whilst hurling abuse and obscenities. Once out of the lecture theatre the disruptive group were seen lingering outside of Roscoe Building, still shouting, and some students expressed concern about leaving the building, however they eventually disbanded at the request of UoM security.”

One of the Union’s BME officers was also in attendance, and commented on the events of the day, saying: “I was appalled by the behaviour of the non-student pro-Israeli activists.”

They added: “These people exposed themselves for what they are: bullies [and] ideologues with no interest in a respectful discussion on even the most basic terms. It was profoundly sad to see [this] as amongst students and young people I know we can have these discussions and debates, and whilst we may not agree, we can respect one another. These people however were set on the type of spectacle that I have never seen on campus before.”

This wasn’t the only disruption to the events of the week, however. On Thursday afternoon, two students were seen putting up a large ‘stop arming Israel’ banner above the roof of the Samuel Alexander building. The banner was up for a brief few minutes before it was taken down by building security.

One of the students, who chose to remain anonymous, said: “I fully understood the risk involved with putting up the banner, but feel that unless strong action is taken the occupation will continue to be ignored by the international community — as it has been for the past five decades.”

A wall was also put up outside the Manchester Universities’ Catholic Chaplaincy: Students covered it with messages like ‘From Palestine to Mexico, the racist walls have got to go’. The wall “was a visual demonstration, students could come and paint messages, it was a way to get them actively involved and be able to see what kind of thing goes on in Palestine. That was the aim, as well as to gain attention for the BDS movement” said Huda Ammori, prominent activist of the BDS movement in Manchester.

“[The university] invests a million pounds in Caterpillar. So far they have bulldozed around 25,000 Palestinian homes leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees,” Ammori continued. “We’re trying to get the university to end these divestments [sic], as well as cutting links with Technion, [who] are the leaders of the research and development of the Israeli arms trade test their weapons… on Palestinians. So, we’re trying to end all institutional and investment links and make sure [the university] uphold these values as well.”

Israeli Apartheid Week is considered by some to be controversial, and according to The Telegraph’s Richard Black, is “a dishonest hate fest masquerading itself in the language of human rights and social justice”. In an article condemning the week as anti-Semitic, Black claimed that “It is about time university chiefs stepped up their legal and moral obligation to monitoring these events and making sure they do not permanently damage relations between students on campuses.”

When asked about the events, Naa Acquah, General Secretary of the University of Manchester Students’ Union, commented that “I think it is right that the events took place as it is all students’ educational right to discuss Israel/Palestine, a topic that has been covered in courses and public life for decades.

“I have had conversations with various students’ groups and what is clear for me is that most students want to be able to feel safe and accepted on their campus whilst being able to have these discussions without the thought of being harassed or put under extra scrutiny, especially from external sources. I want to promise that I will try my best to make sure every student can feel comfortable whilst being able to express their opinions.”

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “The University recognises that freedom of speech and expression within the law is of fundamental importance for universities. Events held on our campus are reviewed under the Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech.

“For this event, which was brought forward by a student society through the Students’ Union, the University stipulated a number of controls in accordance with the relevant legislation, and provided an impartial Chair for the meeting to ensure that a wide range of views could be expressed and that all contributors would be listened to with respect.

“Regrettably, when it became clear that this was not happening, the Chair, in consultation with University staff and representatives of the Students’ Union took the decision to close the meeting.”

The University of Manchester Jewish Society (JSoc) were contacted but have not yet been available to release a statement on these events.

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