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27th April 2017

Manchester Students’ Union support of BDS could be breaking the law

The Charity Commission is investigating open support of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign by students’ unions across the UK, who may have broken the law

Support of the pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign at students’ unions around the country is being investigated by the Charity Commission amid claims of a rise in anti-Semitism.

The University of Manchester is one of the many UK students’ unions to openly support the BDS campaign. BDS define themselves as a “global citizens’ response of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality”, campaigning to “challenge international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism” in disputed Israeli/Palestinian territory.

In 2010, students’ unions became registered charities, meaning that they have a legal obligation to support the views of their members. In universities across the country, many Jewish and Israeli students have complained of feeling discriminated against. Last year, an ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ was held at SOAS in order to “raise awareness of Israel’s apartheid policies over the Palestinian people”.

Charity guidelines state that a union should only make public statements on matters that directly concern the welfare of the university’s students. Because of this, universities’ support for the pro-Palestine campaign has been reported to the Charity Commission. David Holdsworth, the Commission’s Chief Operating Officer, said that students’ unions cannot discriminate against students “of a particular faith or race.”

Support for the campaign has grown quickly in the last two years. London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) began a boycott of Israel in 2015, and, in a university-wide referendum in the same year, voted in favour of formally supporting the BDS campaign. The BBC reported that 17 universities in the UK have now passed motions in favour of supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. In a vote last December, 60 per cent of the Manchester Students’ Union Senate voted in favour of endorsing the movement.

In February this year, current National Union of Students President and BDS supporter Malia Bouattia was found guilty of making anti-Semitic remarks involving the Israel/Palestine conflict. A Home Affairs Select Committee investigation found that “referring to the University of Birmingham as a ‘Zionist outpost’ (and similar comments) smacks of outright racism,” though Bouattia was not disciplined for this. She yesterday lost the NUS presidency to Shakira Martin after running for a second term.

A Charity Commission spokesperson said the reports of support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement within university organisations will be “assessed consistently” by the organisation. If necessary, it will “take regulatory action.”

Speaking to The Mancunion, a spokesperson for Manchester BDS said the movement has “overwhelming support from students and academics,” but also spoke of the “difficulties caused by the university, such as disciplinary charges.” The organisation claims to have never received any complaints of anti-Semitism or discrimination. The spokesperson also said that BDS “welcomes members from the whole community…we would never condone any form of discrimination.”

The University of Manchester Students’ Union did not respond to a request for comment.

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