'Isolated' Jewish Students Campaign Against BDS at London College

Amid vote on boycott, Pro-Israel School of Oriental and African Studies students talk of hostile environment.

C Ford

LONDON – Avrahum Sanger didn’t want to attend university last week. It was Israeli Apartheid Week at campuses across the United Kingdom, and the Students’ Union of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where the Jewish 21-year-old studies economics, was holding a school-wide vote on whether to call on its university to join an academic boycott of Israel. Sanger was one of the few students vocally opposed to such a move, and the atmosphere, he says, was hostile.

The union voted overwhelmingly in favor of the boycott, with 73 percent of some 2,000 people voting to endorse a boycott of Israel, according to results announced Friday. The vote was open to all faculty and staff, including cleaners, maintenance workers and support staff, as well as the 5,000-strong student body.

Billed as a “referendum,” the non-binding vote was held throughout the annual pro-boycott event, which this week is taking place in the United States and across Europe.

Part of the University of London, the School of Oriental and African Studies is known for having a mostly pro-Palestinian student body, with debate on Israel-Palestine at the more radical end of the spectrum. The union has supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement since it was first launched in 2005.

Last October, the body voted to “escalate their support,” thereby prompting last week’s vote. Aside from sending a vote to the university that students want the institution to adopt a boycott policy; specifically, the “yes” campaign called for cutting ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where BA students of Hebrew and Israeli studies can spend a year studying.

In a January letter clarifying the Student Union's position on the referendum, the body stated that members of its executive had a key role in pushing for the vote, and supporting a boycott, saying "the Union was the instigator of the campaign through that initial UGM (University General Meeting) motion that both reaffirmed support to BDS whist [sic] also calling for the referendum." When it comes to those who opposed it, meanwhile, only a tiny group of now five students – originally 10 – lobbied against it. Among them was 21-year-old Moselle Paz, president of the university’s Jewish Society, who told Haaretz she expected to lose the vote but “If we hadn’t made a stand, this whole thing would have gone through without the other side being represented.”

Paz, a third-year law student from Guatemala, says she feels isolated at SOAS because of her views on Israel. Sanger, who worked with Paz on the anti-boycott campaign, also says he has felt intimidated to voice his opinion because of the animosity between the two sides on campus.

Outside the school before a debate Tuesday on whether BDS damages academic freedoms, a number of students told Haaretz it was wiser not to speak out against BDS, or for Israel. “People would stop talking to me,” said one post-graduate student who preferred to remain nameless.

Another student campaigning for the boycott told Haaretz that students who voted against the boycott were more likely to do so out of concerns for academic freedom, not because of their support for Israel.

Sanger says the pro-Israel campaigners were reluctant to set up a stall in the SOAS common room because “it’s too hostile.”

About 80 people did turn up to a lively anti-boycott campaign event on Wednesday about Israel’s legitimacy and anti-Semitism in the BDS movement, where there were heated exchanges between the two Israeli academics arguing against BDS, some heckling and jeers, and charges that the anti-boycott campaign had spread lies about the implications of a boycott and the support behind the BDS campaign. Sanger says that just running a  pro-Israel event at SOAS was an achievement, given the tensions between the two sides. 

The SOAS union put out a press release following the vote maintaining that it “was conducted in an open, fair and transparent environment” and that “both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigners were given equal platforms to hold panel discussions and debates.”

In a statement published online ahead of the vote, SOAS said it does everything to maintain “neutrality.”

Head of Communications Katie Price insists it was more an opinion poll than a referendum, because the school doesn't have the mechanism in place for running a genuine, representative referendum. She also added that the union taking such a strong stance on a divisive issue is problematic.

The school has “constantly brought this up as an issue to the union,” she said. She noted that events like the debate are evidence of healthy discussion, however, and the university can only respond to formal complaints from students feeling bullied or intimidated. 

Paz and Sanger say they have made some complaints to the union, and will meet with university administrators next week to discuss the atmosphere, how they feel as Jewish students, and how the vote was handled. When it comes to concerns about anti-Israel activism crossing a line to anti-Semitism, Price said “that should be a concern to everyone.” 

The Students’ Union and Palestine Society declined to comment on accusations of bias or students’ fears of speaking up, but a statement on their website abuot the vote published in January clarifies their position: “We have received some constructive criticism from members of the SOAS community who have rightly believed that the union has a bias when it comes to the referendum. This is correct.” The union said it would be “dishonest and false” to suggest otherwise. 

Baroness Ruth Deech, a barrister and former Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford and a very vocal opponent of the boycott movement, says that while she believes it’s not the job of a university union to endorse BDS, she doesn’t believe boycott activism has reached “a tipping point” on campus that makes lives difficult for Jews or Israel advocates.   

“Most Jewish students have a perfectly fine time. When I speak out, some of them ask why I’m making a fuss,” she told Haaretz.

Of course, not all Jews oppose boycotting Israel, but for those who don’t support BDS there is less tension around these issues at most other universities in London, students say. Students at Nottingham, Leeds and Birmingham universities, as well as University College London, London School of Economics and Kings College London all set up stalls as part of the “Piece 2 Peace” campaign during Israeli Apartheid Week, which promotes dialogue and is against BDS. Israel societies at a number of those institutions hosted events and debates. 

There is steady debate about Israel and BDS on U.K. campuses, with upticks at times of conflict. During the Gaza war last summer, for example, the National Union of Students endorsed motions supporting a boycott. Still, no institutions have adopted a formal boycott, with about 12 unions out of more than 124 universities adopting such motions during this academic year, according to the Union of Jewish Students.

On February 10, Goldsmith’s University in London voted 112 in favor of boycotting Israel, seven against and one abstention. There have also been rejections. In the lead-up to Israeli Apartheid Week, Bristol and Liverpool universities voted against BDS motions, for instance. 

These endorsements are primarily symbolic, according to Luke Akehurst of We Believe in Israel, a grass-roots pro-Israel network that provides some financial support for student activism. While it can be “upsetting and alienating” for the 8,500 Jewish students studying in the U.K. – 0.5% of the student body – and for pro-Israel students, especially on campuses where they are in the minority, “on the whole it’s balanced,” he says. For most students, he adds, the priority is studying and not politics, let alone foreign policy. 

What worries the Union of Jewish Students is that the pro-BDS stance is pushed indiscriminately, singling out Jewish or pro-Israeli students, Director of Campaigns, Maggie Suissa, on the road with students for Israeli Apartheid Week-related activity, said in an email. 

With instances of students unable to access certain kosher foods on campus because of their being produced by Israeli companies, and others feeling they are blamed for Israeli actions, anti-Semitism is also a concern, she said. Still, according to Suissa, many Jewish students who oppose BDS “organize well and robustly against BDS calls on their campuses.”

In a statement published Sunday, the anti-boycott campaign said that the vote was “discriminatory,” “unrepesentative” and “in clear violation of the U.K. Race Relations Act.”

“With anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe, we find this decision alarming and a great cause for concern. It is not only discriminatory but in clear violation of both the U.K. Race Relations Act and SOAS’s own equality and discrimination rules,” read the statement.

Seventy percent of students did not vote for the motion, the statement noted.

This article was amended on March 4, 2015. The new version clarifies that the statement from the SOAS Student Union was made in January this year ahead of referendum on BDS, and not in response to the referendum. In addition, the assertion that the SOAS Student Union led the "yes" campaign has been corrected to state that some of its members had played a "key role."