The week just gone has been an excellent one for student activism for Palestine in the UK. The NUS executive council finally adopted a policy that clearly defended Palestinian human rights, and pledged to send NUS officers on future flotillas sailing to Gaza. Then barely days after that we at the University of London Union voted by a large margin – 10 votes to one in favour of supporting, and adopting, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign. The text of the motion has been widely circulated, and speaks for itself, however I feel it worth spelling out some key myths which were deconstructed during the discussions on the motion:
Why pick onIsrael?
A common argument heard, but a false one nonetheless. In the first instance noone ever levels this claim at other campaigns. When I was at school I was involved in the Free Tibet movement, and never recall anyone criticising me for “picking on China” or ignoring other human rights abusers. And yet it appears this criticism is only valid against Palestine human rights supporters.
Which is really the whole point, the question is not ‘Why Israel?’, but ‘Why Palestine?’ Why is it that Palestinian human rights are always seen as a unique case that can’t be dealt with like other peoples? Why does the United Nations help every refugee population return to their home, except one – the Palestinians? Why has the BBC aired every DEC charity appeal except one – the Palestinian one (in 2009)? Why did the BBC recently beep the word ‘Palestine’ out of an MC’s song on the radio show 1Extra, as if it were a swear word?
So the real issue is why should Palestinians be treated any different to other human beings? As an interesting side issue, we also adopted a motion in support of Bahraini students fighting against their oppression – though no drama has yet to arise over this.
The very simple answer for us is, because we have been asked to. The whole cross-section of Palestinian society – from trade unions, student unions, women’s associations to LGBT groups, have asked us, international civil society, to implement BDS in our home countries to pressure the world to uphold Palestinian human rights. If, for example, there is a call from the Tibetan movement to implement BDS against China, then you will find us voting for just such a motion in the next Senate meeting. Our decision this week was no different to the decision ULU made thirty years ago when it implemented a BDS campaign against the apartheid regime of South Africa; responding to a direct call from the oppressed peoples.
Is Boycott Anti-Semitic?
BDS is categorically not anti-Semitic and is in fact the opposite – it is a proudly anti-racist campaign. One need only look at the three clear demands of the BDS movement to see this is obvious. The goal is full equality for all peoples in the land of Palestine/Israel – nothing more and nothing less.
Is it Anti-Israel?
This is a pro-Palestinian human rights campaign, and so the target for the BDS is anything that gets in the way of this basic cause. Targets of BDS are companies and institutions who help, directly or indirectly, aid the occupation and racism that Palestinians suffer. This could be an Israeli university that helps create surveillance equipment for the Israeli army; however it could equally be a French company such as Veolia that is helping build a train link for the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Or it could be the American company Caterpillar who make especially made bulldozers fitted with machine guns to help the Israeli army destroy Palestinian homes more easily. So while it is the Israeli state that is at the frontline of the occupation and racism, there is a whole web of institutions and companies who are aiding, and profiting from, the subjugation of the Palestinians, many of them based here in Europe and America. In fact the irony of this accusation is the fact that we will be working with an Israeli organisation, Who Profits?, closely over implementing our BDS policy with companies we use at ULU.
Won’t adopting BDS alienate Jewish and Israeli students at ULU?
When I hear this comment, I am shocked that more fuss is not made that this statement is categorically racist. Why should someone’s nationality, race or religion determine what their views are on political issues such as military occupation and racism? Some of the best activists I have had the priviledge to work alongside have been Jewish, and many Israeli too, so what a profoundly offensive assumption this question is to people such as these. My nationality hasn’t stopped me, or millions of other British people, from being against our country’s military conquests in Iraq and Afghanistan, and being white hasn’t made me defensive of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Surely as Students’ Unions we shouldn’t take sides in this conflict?
This is the most commonly heard view in the student movement, and it is answered very simply. Yes, there are two sides to this: one side is for human rights and against racism; the other side is for whitewashing or overt support for racism and military occupation. You will find Palestinians, Israelis, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Europeans, Americans, Africans, on both sides. So just like we ‘take sides’ on issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia, so we should equally take sides on human rights issues (like we do for most other conflicts across the globe – from Iran to Columbia to Burma).
ULU senate, a politically diverse committee, clearly voted for the motion. There was ample time for senate members to read the motion, there was ample time for debate. As it happens the speaker against the motion made sweeping remarks that, if directed against any other peoples, would have been designated as racist (but as said above – Palestinians are still treated as a special case when it comes to racism and rights). There was then the absurd claim that the supporters of this motion only ‘hated Israel’ because it was an ally of the USA, and we were anti-American. Perhaps the irony was not lost that the co-writer of this motion was an American himself.
We will now be setting in process the work of looking closely at what companies and contracts we allow to profit off our students. There is nothing prouder than reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and hearing ULU mentioned warmly on two separate occasions. The motion passed last week is just a continuation of a proud tradition ULU has of standing with the oppressed of the world.