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British university votes ‘Yes’ to academic boycott of Israel

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Palestine
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During SOAS Israeli Apartheid Week 2015, students stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. © SOAS BDS Campaign

Chants of ‘BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] yes, BDS yes!’ rocked the walls of the Students’ Union bar at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) last Friday.

SOAS was the first university in Britain to hold a school-wide referendum on an academic boycott of Israel – and it voted ‘Yes’ by an overwhelming majority.

After weeks of intense campaigning from both sides, the result kicked off a party – complete with Palestinian folk music and Arab pop – which lasted late into the night. Many students and staff at SOAS have ties to the Middle East region.

Of the more than 2,000 students and staff who took part in the referendum between 23 and 27 February, 73 per cent voted in favour of suspending all ties to Israeli universities. SOAS currently has formal ties with Jerusalem-based Hebrew University.

Although academic boycott is the most controversial part of the growing BDS campaign, Israeli higher education institutions are inseparable from the state and actively support the occupation of Palestinian territories in several ways.

During last year’s attack on Gaza, the Hebrew University asked for donations earmarked for ‘Protective Edge’ scholarships, a reference to Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s name for the military operation against the Gaza Strip.

‘The university is joining the war effort to support its warrior students, in order to minimize the financial burden,’ it stated.

In October last year, weapons giant Lockheed Martin signed a research collaboration agreement with Yissum Research and Development Company, a technology transfer company that belongs to the university.

Hebrew University also has a history of victimizing Palestinian students for speaking up against the occupation.

More importantly, this is more the norm than the exception: Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa have also expressed their thanks and ‘great appreciation’ to their students who served in the Israeli military during last summer’s attack on Gaza, and issued them special benefits, such as tuition stipends and opportunities to retake exams. The list goes on.

In the SOAS referendum, 75 per cent of students voted ‘Yes’, as did 91 per cent of contract staff, such as members of the cleaning and security staff.

Perhaps most surprising was the fact that a clear majority, 60 per cent, of SOAS academic staff supported the call: in academia, the illusion of academic freedom is still prevalent.

But as Israeli universities’ complicity in the war crimes against the Palestinian people show, knowledge production is inextricably linked to the military-industrial complex.

In the arguments against the boycott, calls to respect that so-called academic freedom featured strongly. But there is a paradox here: Israeli oppression denies Palestinians their basic rights – including the right to education. What is the point of speaking of academic freedom within a regime that denies a people practically all freedoms?

The result of the referendum is not binding. The students celebrating the results on Friday recognized the need for the Students’ Union to put pressure on the university management to implement the result.

‘We believe that SOAS should be governed in accordance with the values and ethics of the students and staff who make up the institution. We will be requesting that SOAS management uphold the will of its community by ending its links with Israeli universities and thereby ending its connections with human rights abuses committed by Israel,’ the Students’ Union said in a statement.

The boycott is against institutions and their representatives. It does not stop academics from Israeli universities working alongside SOAS academics in an individual capacity.

The Students’ Union and the Palestine Society also called upon other universities to join the academic boycott. ‘As a community, we will continue to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, equality and justice,’, the union stated.

The precedent set by SOAS is an important step forward for the ever-growing BDS campaign, as it amplifies the message that Israel cannot continue its repression, occupation and military attacks on the Palestinian people without impunity

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