This article was first published at the Electronic Intifada.
Chants echoed loudly outside the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, last Thursday. Hundreds had gathered to protest an event featuring the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, in a meeting organized by the SOAS Jewish and United Nations societies.
Protestors could be heard inside the meeting room where Regev was speaking. “They are chanting, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’” Regev said during his presentation, decrying the protestors as “supporters of a hardline, maximalist Palestinian position.”
Regev’s rhetoric was hardly surprising.
Israel and its supporters have been waging a war on campuses to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinian freedom. The global campaign is inspired by the international mobilization against apartheid in South Africa.
SOAS has been a major target as the “first UK campus to back anti-Israel boycott,” according to The Times of Israel.
In February 2015, 73 percent of SOAS students backed an academic boycott of Israel in a school-wide referendum. SOAS is the first campus visited by Regev since he became Israel’s envoy to the UK last year.
In an op-ed in The Times of Israel a day after his talk at the London university, Regev stated he had gone there to put forward Israel’s case, arguing that there was a tendency for academics at the school “to rewrite history and portray Israel as a colonial imposition on the region’s indigenous peoples.”
Regev charged that Israel had been victimized at SOAS – “no Israeli government voice had been heard at SOAS,” an “absence” that “conforms to a troubling trend.” He brandished the anti-Semitism card, condemning SOAS for hosting speakers “notorious for their vociferous hatred of Jewish people.”
The defensive tone of the op-ed, slamming those “falsely portraying the Jews as infiltrators and the Jewish state as imperialist,” suggests Israel feels threatened by the SOAS community and the scholarship its faculty and students put out countering the state’s narrative.
Regev rose to international prominence as an Israeli government spokesperson justifying brutal violence against Palestinian civilians during Israel’s periodic “mowing-the-grass” massacres in Gaza.
Academics were at the forefront of opposition to Regev’s appearance at SOAS. Holding the meeting seemed like “a deliberate provocation,” professor Jonathan Rosenhead argued in an open letter to school director Valerie Amos that was signed by more than 150 academics from SOAS and other UK universities.
“Liaising with the Israeli embassy on such an event, despite the continuation of Israeli policies to deport and ban entry of SOAS staff and students because of their views on Israel, including legally penalizing support for BDS,” the academics state, “is an affront to the SOAS community.”
Thirty-two student societies at SOAS protested the university’s decision to allow what they described as an “official exercise in state propaganda” to go ahead. They called on all students to participate in an “Apartheid Off Campus” day to protest the visit.
A recent UN report found Israel guilty of having “established an apartheid regime” and practicing “demographic engineering, in order to establish and maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority in Israel.”
“This is a political event not an academic presentation,” student signatories asserted, challenging SOAS’s proposition that an event format that allowed the Israeli envoy’s views to go unchallenged constituted a free debate.
In a separate letter, Palestinian students raised the “very real risk” that attending and voicing criticism at the meeting would put them at risk of being interrogated, detained, or deported and banned by Israeli border agents, especially in light of the country’s new law denying entry to supporters of the boycott movement.
That law was recently used against Kamel Hawwash, an engineering professor at the University of Birmingham.
Senior SOAS academic Adam Hanieh, who like Hawwash is of Palestinian origin, was also recently detained upon arrival to Tel Aviv and banned from entering Israel for 10 years.
“The SOAS management would turn our campus into an extension of Israel’s military occupation by allowing students to be monitored and have their rights trampled on,” Palestinian students warned in their letter.
The meeting, protesters argued, “constitutes a violation rather than a defense of academic freedom and of freedom of speech.”
This article was first published at the Electronic Intifada.
Student union leaders in the UK and Ireland have been slammed for accepting expenses-paid propaganda trips to Israel.
Palestinian students on Tuesday condemned the trip as a “whitewash” of “Israeli crimes and decades-long oppression of our people.”
A statement signed by Palestinian student groups and unions across Historic Palestine said that “far from being ‘educational,’ these trips focus on giving a one-sided, pro-apartheid vision of our reality here in Palestine.”
She wrote that it was “essential I listen to the voices of my membership and educate myself on particular issues such as Israel and Palestine to ensure that I make informed decisions as a leader.”
But the Palestinian students’ statement said that “participants on such trips have met with Israeli officials, military officers and even visited illegal settlements – actively normalizing their existence despite the breach of Palestinian land rights and international law, which they represent.”
A group of college students has launched a petition calling on the NUS’ executive committee to hold these officers to account.
Martin herself voted in favor of BDS in 2015. “I’m proud to support peace and justice for Palestine,” she said in her 2015 election speech, “because everyone has the right to free education and not military occupation.”
Malaka Mohammed, a Palestinian activist and PhD student in the UK, commented on Martin’s Facebook page that she wondered “how someone would get educated when they’re going on a sponsored-trip representing one side of the conflict.”
“Would they get you to see Palestinian families who lost their loved ones in occupied territories?” Mohammed asked. “Or those detained for no charge or trial? Or maybe families of over 400 children in Israeli jails? Or those whose lands are confiscated? Or maybe my family in Gaza who lost many of their neighbors and friends? The answer is unfortunately no … You will get educated for sure but on what they want you to see and learn.”
Martin’s trip was organized by the Union of Jewish Students, a staunchly pro-Israel organization which receives funding from the Israeli embassy in London, as revealed by a recent undercover documentary.
Al Jazeera’s film The Lobby also showed that Richard Brooks, another NUS vice president, had been plotting with pro-Israel activists to overthrow elected NUS president Malia Bouattia, a supporter of Palestinian rights.
The film led to the resignations of Shai Masot, a senior political officer at the Israeli embassy, and Maria Strizzolo, a civil servant who plotted the downfall of a senior UK government minister along with Masot.
Investigations have been launched into Strizzolo and Brooks.
Palestine societies in the UK last week wrote a letter to Martin urging her to uphold her previously stated position on BDS. “You risk being part of Israel’s attempt to ‘rebrand’ and whitewash its apartheid system,” they wrote.
The letter says that “standing with Palestine means more than holding flags and verbal solidarity – not only did you fail to live up to your words, but you are using your power and agency to normalize apartheid.”
The trip Martin accepted appears to be part of a wider wave of such pro-Israel propaganda visits of student leaders this month.
Angela Alexander, women’s officer in NUS Scotland, also disclosed in a Facebook post that she joined the same UJS trip.
And Fergal McFerran, president of the NUS Union of Students in Ireland, unintentionally revealed his presence in an illegal settlement in Israeli-occupied Syria last week.
A posting to his Facebook page on an unrelated subject revealed a location of Kidmat Tzvi, an Israeli colony in the occupied Golan Heights.
McFerran later deleted the post and reposted it without a location specified.
So far, McFerran has failed to publicly disclose his trip, and it hasn’t been made clear whether he was on the same UJS delegation.
A third NUS vice president, Shelly Asquith, last week disclosed that she declined an “all-expenses-paid trip to Israel on account of my role” in NUS. The offer was made by StandWithUS, a strongly pro-Israel group which has received Israeli government funding.
“I would not take up such a trip because NUS’s policy is to support the BDS movement,” Asquith posted on Facebook. “These trips are part of a public relations exercise to encourage people to view Israel in a favorable way in the context of the ‘conflict.’ They are open about that purpose.”
This article was first published at The Electronic Intifada.
Anti-racism activist Malia Bouattia was elected president of the UK’s National Union of Students at their conference Wednesday.
Bouattia is well-known for her public stances in support of many causes, including the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, or BDS. For years she has successfully campaigned in favor of passing BDS resolutions within the NUS.
She has given many speeches encouraging students to back BDS and observe its guidelines within their campuses – especially the boycott of Israeli academic institutions complicit in abuses of Palestinian rights.
After serving as the Black students’ officer, Bouattia will be the first Black Muslim woman elected president in the 94 years of NUS history.
When the NUS passed its latest BDS motion in June last year, the Israeli prime minister falsely claimed the organization supported Islamic State, the violent extremist group also known as ISIS.
“They boycott Israel but they refuse to boycott ISIS. That tells you everything you want to know about the BDS movement. They condemn Israel and do not condemn ISIS,” Benjamin Netanyahu claimed. He repeated the same allegation on Twitter.
Predictably, right-wing media have recycled this same lie to demonize Bouattia and have also attempted to smear her as anti-Semitic.
But the truth was that the NUS national executive council adopted a resolution at its 3 December 2014 meeting that called for ISIS to be “condemned” as “a reactionary terrorist organization that carries out atrocities” against people of the regions where it operates.
The previous September, the executive had rejected a motion on Kurdish solidarity that contained similar language, but its decision had nothing to do with the condemnation of ISIS whatsoever. The resolution was considered flawed because it encouraged students to spy on each other.
The BBC’s website on Wednesday initially claimed that Bouattia had “refused to condemn” ISIS.
After outrage at this false claim was expressed on social media, the BBC appears to have removed that particular lie from the article, but without issuing a correction or apology.
The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported Bouattia’s victory with the headline, “UK student union’s new president supports Palestinian ‘resistance.’” The article repeats and amplifies the false allegations found in UK media that Bouattia is an ISIS sympathizer.
Bouattia anticipated these media attacks.
In her winning election speech at the NUS national conference, she said: “I know many of you will have seen my name dragged through the mud by right-wing media. You will have read that I am a terrorist, that my politics are driven by hate.”
“How wrong that is,” she said, given her background of having to flee her home country Algeria and seek refuge in the UK.
As a seven-year-old child, she “saw a country ripped apart by terror” and was “pushed to exile by its doing.”
“I know too well the damage done by racism and persecution. I faced it every day,” she said, promising, “I will continue to fight, in all its forms, whoever its targets, whether it is anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia or any other bigoted idea.”
Addressing the prime minister, she said “David Cameron may not like me or our movement, but when we’re strong he’s forced to listen.”
You can watch the rest of her electrifying speech in the video above.
BDS campaigners, including many Jews, are systemically smeared with the false charge of anti-Semitism by pro-Israel media and campaign groups. So Bouattia is no exception in this regard.
Prior to her victory, several UK Jewish student societies sent her an open letter questioning her “past rhetoric” against Zionism.
She replied in an open letter rejecting the accusations and emphasizing that disagreement over “anti-Zionist politics” is “a political argument, not one of faith.”
Bouattia made sure to draw the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, reaffirming that efforts to conflate them “are dangerous and have become the excuse for many racist and fascist attacks up and down the country and in the world, which I am sure we all want to end.”
Bouattia’s activism is driven by her passion towards fighting racism of all forms.
This has been evident in her campaigning, which has ranged from supporting Holocaust memorial day to efforts to combat Islamophobia.
Zionism is a settler-colonial ideology and practice that led to the establishment of Israel on the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian lands. To this day Israel continues to discriminate against Palestinians based on this ethno-religious ideology, especially by refusing to allow refugees to return to their lands solely on the basis that they are not Jewish.
Bouattia was one of the main campaigners behind the recent launch of the Students Not Suspects campaign, which aimed at fighting the UK government’s Islamophobic “anti-radicalization” strategy, Prevent.
She appeared in this recent video that aimed to mobilize students and academics to put an end to Prevent on UK campuses.
Prevent “forces colleges and universities to spy on students,” the video explains. It creates “a climate of suspicion around students’ political and religious view,” and promotes “a culture of surveillance and self-censorship,” which is aimed at silencing students and restricting academic freedom.
“Because of the racialized way that counter-terrorism initiatives are formed,” Bouattia says in the video, “it’s black and Muslim students that are most at risk. And so far they’ve been disproportionately targeted.”
The video also mentions two cases previously reported by The Electronic Intifada: the academic conference on Israel at Southampton University which has been banned two years in a row, and the Bath University conference on conflict in the modern world which was subjected to UK and Israeli government monitoring last year.
Bouattia’s election is a sign of changing times in the UK student movement.
Back in 2009, the then president of NUS Wes Streeting not only campaigned against BDS, he went so far as to join an Israeli government anti-BDS working group in Jerusalem which slandered the nonviolent civil society movement as “evil.”
Now a right-wing MP in the Labour party, Streeting Wednesday reacted to the election of the first non-white NUS president in the union’s history by claiming that the “NUS is lost.”
Students at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, protested on Thursday over an unannounced meeting between their institution’s director and Mark Regev, the new Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Previously the Israeli prime minister’s spokesperson, Regev is a familiar face on television screens where he has often defended military attacks on Palestinians.
He started his new role as ambassador in London on Monday.
On Wednesday, Regev posted on Twitter a photo of himself posing with SOAS director Valerie Amos, after they had had what he termed a “good meeting.”
Dozens of students gathered outside SOAS Thursday chanting: “BDS go! Amos and Regev no!”
Students also protested outside Amos’ office, calling for a free Palestine.
A Facebook page set up by protest organizers stated that “by accepting the ambassador’s visit, Valerie Amos and SOAS as an institution are complicit in … ongoing colonialism.”
A coalition of student societies issued a statement condemning the meeting, saying they considered it “a flagrant violation of the principles of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which the SOAS Students’ Union overwhelmingly voted to support in the largest student referendum ever held at SOAS last year.”
The groups demanded an explanation, and for Amos “to apologize for meeting with Mark Regev … and to accept our invitation to work together on applying the result of the democratic BDS referendum to the university.”
In an emailed response to the student union, Amos said: “I met the Israeli ambassador to follow up on a letter I had sent him about the detention and treatment of a SOAS research student at Ben Gurion airport.” She added that she saw this “as an important part of my responsibility as director.”
But Zeid Shuaib, a Palestinian student at SOAS told The Electronic Intifada that “this visit has a political message. This is an attempt to undermine BDS, and specifically the SOAS community’s relentless support for BDS.”
An Israeli journalist on a visit to the London embassy recently reported on the “war room”-style map which details “the main campuses, the deployment of pro-Israel activists and the location of the ‘enemy forces.’”
It seems likely SOAS students are considered among such “enemy forces.”
An overwhelming 73 percent voted in favor.
But the coalition of student groups protesting the Regev meeting charged the administration with disregarding the result.
“The student societies that supported the BDS referendum have made effort after effort to engage management to ensure that the governance of the university is kept democratic and have only been met with intimidation and aggression,” the groups said.
While Regev was the Israeli prime minister’s chief spokesperson, he relentlessly justified Israel’s wars to the world’s media, including in the UK.
Whether it was the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, or its repeated “mowing the lawn” massacres in Gaza, Regev was there to excuse Israel’s killing of civilians.
SOAS student Roba Salibi said, “we will continue to mobilize and put pressure on the management to turn our BDS referendum result into actions, and ensure that such an offensive and outrageous act does not happen again.”