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Cambridge vs BDS: Standing up to institutional bias Open in fullscreen

Malia Bouattia

Cambridge vs BDS: Standing up to institutional bias

Activists host a solidarity sail on the River Thames in London - 2016 [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 November, 2017

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Comment: Universities in the UK are clamping down on pro-Palestine campaigners while their pro-Israel counterparts enjoy unadulterated free speech, writes Malia Bouattia.
Earlier this month I was invited to speak about the globalised struggle for Palestinian rights by the Palestine Society at Cambridge University. Also present were the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement founder Omar Barghouti, and War on Want Director, Asad Rahman. 

The event had been planned for many weeks, not only because of the draconian bureaucratic measures imposed by universities to screen outside speakers and content - now sadly normalised in such institutions - but also because Palestine solidarity activists have come to expect that managers (and sometimes even members of their own student unions) will attempt to halt events, ban speakers or force ridiculous regulations upon them.

It is no longer a surprise to be told that the previously confirmed room booking is nowhere to be found on the university's system, days before a panel involving international and national speakers. Many discussions on the war on terror, anti-colonialism, police violence and international solidarity, have been unexpectedly aborted.

When organsiers provide evidence of room booking and confirmation, claims that the event is too controversial and could potentially pose an (undefined) threat soon tend to follow. "Security measures" will have to be applied, names of attendees will need t be recorded and sometimes even new speakers will be imposed in order to "balance out the debate".

Increasingly, the PREVENT agenda and its supposed safeguarding measures are mobilised to justify such decisions.

In effect, Cambridge University was bowing to outside pressure and curtailing the rights of students to freely organise

I was therefore almost expecting bad news as I travelled up to Cambridge. And sure enough, within moments of my arrival onto campus, my hosts informed me that they had been contacted by the administration only a few hours earlier.

The intended chair, Dr Ruba Salih, was to be replaced with a supposedly "politically neutral" one, selected from the ranks of management.

This decision was justified by unspecified opposition to the event.

In fact, in the lead up to the panel discussion, the pro-Israel lobby group "StandWithUs" had coordinated a letter campaign to intimidate organisers into canceling the whole thing.

In effect, Cambridge University was bowing to outside pressure and curtailing the rights of students to freely organise, and that of academics to freely express their views, not because of a professed care for neutrality, but because of partisan pressure from pro-Israel campaigners.

It is hard to imagine the next event organised by the Israel, Conservative, or Student Rights societies being given the same treatment.

The night before, a similar issue arose at the London School of Economics (LSE) where Barghouti, Rahman and others were due to speak.

Not only was the intended chair forced to step down - again a young academic woman of colour - but her replacement - again a white male university official - allowed multiple disruptions, including heckling and shouting abuse during the speakers' intervention.

Furthermore, the very people who were making the speakers and attendees feel threatened, were not asked to leave, and instead given the floor during the question and answer session. 

The fact that two women of colour (Dr Ruba salih, SOAS and Dr Ayça çubukçu, LSE) were deemed too politically biased and incapable of moderating a discussion in the context of an academic institution, especially on their specialist topic, speaks volumes on the implicit sexism and racism at play.

It seems that university authorities believe that neutrality, impartiality, and the authority to moderate a debate, is a talent that only senior white men in our society possess.

Palestinian solidarity campaigns continue to thrive in the UK despite governmental pressures. Pro-Palestine protest outside Israeli embassy in London May 2017 [Getty]

Palestinian solidarity campaigns continue to thrive
in the UK despite government pressures.
Pro-Palestine protest outside Israeli embassy in
London May 2017 [Getty]

This issue is also a symptom of the deeper crisis, not just within higher education but across society: The growing undermining of civil liberties under the cover of the so-called "War on Terror".

It is a legal duty, under the Prevent agenda, for all civil servants, including teachers, doctors, mental health professionals and lecturers to monitor - and report - service users (that is students and patients) for ill-defined signs of radicalisation, and so-called non-violent extremism.

As well as creating a space of effective pre-crime, or thought crime, this government programme also serves to criminalise communities as well as political action.  

Central to this criminalisation has been the Palestine solidarity movement. In fact, government guidelines highlight Palestine solidarity activity as a key indicator of this supposed radicalisation.

This has led to Palestine solidarity activists being flagged and referred to the Prevent agenda for wearing "free Palestine" badges, raising money for charity, or organising events in schools and universities. 

At the same time, the government has made repeated attempts to curtail the right of student unions and local councils to implement BDS policies, or to even hold Israel Apartheid Week events.

Last year, Universities Minister Jo Johnson, wrote to every vice chancellor in the UK, calling on them to monitor these events closely, which led some universities, such as UCLan in Preston to forbid the events altogether.

The double standards are striking.

In the case of Cambridge University, StandWithUs sponsored an event on campus with the Israeli ambassador to the UK Mark Regev, which saw opposition from Palestine solidarity activists.

And yet the administrative authorities did not enforce such measures.

It is worth noting that Regev earned his international fame while official spokesperson of the Israeli state. During this time he attempted to justify the atrocities carried out by the Israeli army in Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

It seems that justifications for military massacres are not a cause for concern in our universities. Peaceful, civil society movements of boycott, divestment and sanctions by students unions, trade unions, and institutions on the other hand, are considered quite troublesome and "extreme".

Over 500 people have signed a petition condemning the actions of Cambridge University including countless academics from across the UK.

The renowned Cambridge based academic Priyamvada Gopal expressed her anger over Twitter, stating, that she was "Really concerned about attempts to squash informed free discussion on Palestine, yesterday LSE & today at Cambridge. Imposing 'neutral' chairs on discussions which already have respected academics chairing them, giving it to pressure from pro-Israeli state groups. Disgraceful."

What is taking place is obviously an attack on the Palestine solidarity movement at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for the British government to justify its unconditional support for the Israeli state.

The vast majority of the British population, as shown in YouGov polls, supports the rights of the Palestinian people

However, this is also an attack on civil society as a whole. We are living through a period of aggressive and rapid roll back of civil liberties and basic aspects of our free speech, under the guise of fighting terrorism and radicalisation. 

The vast majority of the British population, as shown in YouGov polls, supports the rights of the Palestinian people. Yet instead of respecting popular opinion, the British state is criminalising solidarity and curtailing our political rights. 

The fight for justice for the Palestinian people is not only one of solidarity.

It is also a fight for our own political rights, for our own vision of a democratic society where all of us can be actively involved in decisions over which institutions, which companies, and which states we want to have a relationship with, and which ones we don't.

This includes our right to demand that our colleges, workplaces and communities, are not complicit with the human rights abuses, military aggressions, settlement expansions and blockades imposed on the people of Palestine. 


Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former President of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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