As Israel and the UK government celebrate 100 years of the Balfour Declaration – marking Britain’s support for the settler project that led to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine – students on British campuses are asserting their support for Palestinian rights.
Last month, dozens of students demonstrated when Michael Freeman, counsellor for civil society affairs at the Israeli embassy in London, visited Bristol.
Students say they opposed Freeman’s visit because of the policies he represents as an Israeli diplomat.
Student protesters engaged with passersby on campus and passed out educational leaflets on Israel’s war crimes. The protest lasted for the entire duration of Freeman’s two-hour event.
Freeman’s visit to Bristol was part of a series of talks given by Israeli diplomats at universities around the UK. The talks are an attempt by the Israeli embassy to whitewash Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people.
Both Freeman and Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, recently scheduled events on campuses across the country.
This is part and parcel of a larger project, backed by Israel, of fighting the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and its supporters who run campaigns to end UK corporate and institutional complicity in Israel’s human rights violations.
Students and faculty are uniting in strong opposition to visits by Israeli officials. Regev spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London earlier this year, prompting lively pushback from students and staff, including an “apartheid off campus” event outside his talk, which was attended by hundreds of protesters.
The involvement of both students and staff in opposing the visits of Israeli diplomats demonstrates that this issue is relevant to more than just the student body: It affects all members of the university campus.
At SOAS, university leadership disregarded pressing questions of personal and institutional responsibility regarding Regev’s presence on campus. Valerie Amos, the university’s director, refused to intervene despite receiving a letter signed by more than 100 SOAS staff calling on her to do so.
Another stop on the Israeli embassy’s tour was the University of Manchester. After the student union in Manchester voted to support a BDS resolution last year, students and faculty had joined together in a divestment campaign focusing on the university’s ties with companies complicit in Israel’s crimes.
The students and staff say they started this academic year with a letter-writing campaign to confront the university over its cooperation with the Israeli embassy in attempting to shut down a student event.
The students say they immediately started organizing their own event against the Balfour celebrations, which took place on the same day.
“Move away from imperialism”
Adie Nistelrooy, a Manchester-based solidarity activist, said that organizers called on people to contact university officials, urging them to cancel the event.
“This created pressure from inside the institution as well as from outside,” Nistelrooy told The Electronic Intifada.
The strength of the movement in Manchester was made clear a few days before the demonstration when it was announced by organizers that the Balfour celebration event was being moved from the University of Manchester to a Hilton hotel.
Even after this victory, students continued to mobilize. Organizers say that protesters took part in a march from the university to the Manchester Hilton hotel on 31 October.
Students, members of the Palestinian community and Palestine solidarity groups from around the country took part.
Community support for the demonstration was obvious as onlookers spontaneously joined in the march as it went past, organizers told The Electronic Intifada.
“The protest was bigger than the actual event,” Huda Ammori, a Manchester student and Palestine solidarity activist, explained. “When the Israeli embassy organizes these events, it’s an opportunity for us to mobilize.”
Students and staff say they are justified in opposing events with Israeli diplomats on campus. A key aim of these visits is to normalize Israel’s regime of apartheid and control over Palestinians, they explain.
Students who have protested the Israeli embassy’s presence on campuses argue that the perspectives presented by state representatives are not just harmless opinions or points of view; they have a devastating effect in the real world.
They say that the more Israel cultivates a positive image of itself overseas, the easier it is for the government to consolidate and continue the climate of violence it has created for Palestinians both in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Palestinian students and staff at UK universities contend that the presence of Israeli state representatives on campus ignores their lived experience of Israeli state violence, which encroaches on every aspect of Palestinian life.
Students say that they are responding to the academic boycott call made by Palestinians, which targets the Israeli state, its official representatives and also its complicit education institutions.
UK students have demonstrated that they are committed to defending Palestinian rights and are poised to organize and resist the next time an Israeli official comes to a university campus.
Alia Malak is based in London and is the coordinator of the Student Palestine Solidarity Project.