By Alex Clark
Exeter is a strange battlefield for a heated contest over the right to speak openly about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. A sleepy city tucked away in the southwest corner of the United Kingdom, most of the 22,000 students at the well-respected University seem more interested in studying and socializing, than becoming involved in political activism.
Surface appearances can be very misleading, however. For the past two months, Palestinian students and their allies, including the University’s Friends of Palestine society, have found themselves the targets of a series of attacks on their right to speak out in support of Palestine.
These attacks are not unique to the University of Exeter, but instead tell a story of a widespread clampdown, driven by the British Government and pro-Israel lobbying groups, in an effort to ban student-led campaigns in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and Palestinian rights. Early in the year, Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, wrote to British universities, asking them to adopt a definition of antisemitism which conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
This year’s Israeli Apartheid Week, which took place on British university campuses at the end of February and the beginning of March, was the first major test of these directives. Israeli Apartheid Week has been held on campuses internationally, and in most institutions passes off peacefully, with students at their institutions putting forward the facts of Israel’s apartheid and settler-colonial policies in both Israel proper and the occupied territories to the rest of the student body. Universities in Britain had generally allowed the events of these weeks to run annually without much interference.
However, 2017 was different. Students at several universities in the UK, including the University of Central Lancashire, and University College London, found the events they had scheduled for Israeli Apartheid Week cancelled by university management without warning. At the University of Exeter, the Friends of Palestine society had received the go-ahead from the Guild of Students for the recreation of an Israeli checkpoint on campus. The students wished to show to their colleagues the reality of the system of military checkpoints in the West Bank, which degrade the Palestinian people and impede their free movement; as the students made very clear, however, no student would have been forced to pass through their “checkpoint”, which was to have been staged well away from the entrance to any University building.
In an extraordinary move, the University cancelled the event, stating health and safety concerns. After several rejected appeals, and a large demonstration of students in favour of holding the event, the University management met with the students. At the meeting, they refused to elaborate on what grounds the checkpoint had been banned, and insisted that the students should feel grateful that they had been allowed to hold any events for Israeli Apartheid Week at all. They also admitted that external pressure had been applied to the University to prevent the action going ahead. The campaign to stage the mock checkpoint as originally planned is ongoing.
At the same time, a virulent campaign was made by a pro-Israel lobby group and the right-wing press in Britain against a Palestinian student at Exeter, Malaka Shwaikh. Miss Shwaikh was elected in February as a postgraduate representative, trustee board member and delegate to the conference of the National Union of Students. Coming from Gaza, she lost 66 family members and friends in Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip in 2014. She had been highly active in campaigning against all forms of racism, including antisemitism, within the student community at Exeter.
Taking some tweets, written four years previously, completely out of context, pro-Israel lobby group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, launched a series of attacks on Miss Shwaikh, with the aim of getting her fired from her new positions because of her pro-Palestine stance. ‘The point of these attacks is not to determine the truth, but rather to bully those who speak up for Palestinian rights, in order to scare others away from Palestinian activism,’ Miss Shwaikh wrote in a statement.
After an outpouring of support from Exeter’s students, an investigation by the Exeter Guild of Students concluded that Miss Shwaikh had done nothing to bring the Guild into disrepute.
Students at Exeter are currently involved in another struggle, one to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people, and Palestinian students, through the academic boycott of Israel. The academic boycott has gained much traction in recent years, as the apartheid policies of Israel’s academic institutions have been exposed, from discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel in schools, to Israeli universities developing weapons to use against the Gaza Strip. Israel has also arrested tens of Palestinian students, including over 60 from Birzeit University alone.
In the face of this, the Vice-Chancellor of Exeter, Sir Steve Smith, has announced that he will visit Israel in May, as a ‘show of support for academic links with Israel’. He is to be accompanied by Jo Johnson – the Minister who wrote to UK universities, asking them to clamp down on Palestine activism. A local group, Exeter Palestine Action, has launched a petition calling on Smith and Johnson to cancel their visit.
On March 30th, marking Yom al-Ard, or Palestinian Land Day, students at Exeter staged a protest using the hashtag #DontPunishProtest, calling on the University to allow their activism to go ahead, and for other UK universities, including the University of Manchester, to drop disciplinary action against Palestinian student groups for holding demonstrations. They held a “die-in”, a protest outside the offices of the management, commemorating the six protestors who were killed by Israel on Land Day 1976.
The University of Exeter is a microcosm of university campuses across the UK. Activists for Palestine have been met every step of the way with repression from government bodies, and university managements which do their bidding, and give in easily to pressure from pro-Israel lobby groups. But they have also been met with support from many students. At Exeter, students will continue to fight for their right to protest, to support the work of their elected representatives, and to campaign for solidarity with the Palestinian people. They will not rest until they have achieved Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, knowing that, as with South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, freedom for Palestine will not be far behind.
– Alex Clark (Not his real name) is a student at the University of Exeter. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.