AS A BRITISH STUDENT WITH BOTH PALESTINIAN AND IRAQI DESCENT, my heritage opened my eyes to the suffering of the people of the Middle East. I am privileged to hold a British passport yet I am not distant from the pain of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as the Palestinian citizens of Israel who are classified as second class citizens facing racist laws and institutional discrimination.
When I discovered that my fees were assisting the destruction of my family’s home, I could not focus on my studies. Therefore, at the start of this academic year, I started the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign, a student-led initiative demanding that our university uphold its self-proclaimed values of ‘social responsibility’. The BDS movement is inspired by the boycott of apartheid South Africa and maintains solidarity links to other struggles such as Black Lives Matter. The students’ union at UoM passed a motion in favour of BDS on 8th December 2016.
Universities such as UoM profit from the occupation through their investments in, and institutional ties with, Israeli bodies that participate in the occupation. The university holds investments in several companies that violate human rights, for example Caterpillar, the primary supplier of the armoured bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes to pave the way for illegal Israeli settlements. These were developed by the university’s partner, Technion University of Haifa, which undertakes a number of military research and development projects.
The ongoing oppression has no place in the world that the UoM claims to endorse, and its own ethical investment policy states that it will not hold investments with companies that violate human rights or perpetuate the sales and production of weaponry. We are here to show them exactly why their investments and institutional ties are unethical and socially unsustainable. I organised Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) from 27th February-3rd March at the UoM, alongside other students seeking to raise awareness about occupation and apartheid, and to build support for the growing BDS movement. Unfortunately, our events were targeted by an outside discriminatory and co-ordinated campaign to sabotage IAW. For instance, one of our events, led by the African-American poet Aja Monet, the Palestinian activist Riya Hassan, and the anti-apartheid South African Professor Farid Esack, was disrupted by the North West Friends of Israel, a pro-Israel campaigning group.
As part of our agreement with UoM during the organisation of IAW, it was agreed that Dr Lauren Banko was suitable to chair the events. However, UoM suddenly insisted that the event could only proceed with a “neutral and independent” chair of their choice. To this Dr Lauren Banko responded that “the university is creating a very worrying precedent when it declares an academic who happens to be a historian of pre-1948 Palestine as not ‘suitable’ for the role of chairing a student-organised event on Palestine and the Israeli occupation.”
We were transparent and open in our organising, disclosing the details of our events a month in advance even though we were aware of the risk of interference from pro-Israel activists. Contrast this with the case of Eitan Na’eh, deputy head of mission at the Israeli embassy, who was invited to speak at the UoM at an event called ‘Changing political paradigms in the Middle East’ in November 2015.
The vice chancellor Nancy Rothwell chaired the event. The speaker was revealed two days before the date of the event, and the location was disclosed only three hours before the event.
The power of student activism should not be underestimated. Despite the scrutiny across the UK, IAW was a success with over 30 UK campuses taking part. Every victory for BDS is one step closer to ending the occupation and apartheid system. We listened to the call from Palestinian civil society for the international community to boycott Israel, and we will do everything in our power to end institutional ties with Israel’s war crimes so long as the occupation continues.
If our government won’t support Palestine, then we will make sure that the people do. Justice will win!