Thousands of students and academics attended events as part of what was one of the biggest Israeli Apartheid Weeks in the UK to date.
This was doubly impressive given the unprecedented campaign of repression launched against Israeli Apartheid Week by the UK government, universities and the pro-Israel lobby. The campaign came in the context of broader attacks on Palestine organizing in the UK and across the world.
On 13 February, UK universities minister Jo Johnson wrote a letter, seen by The Electronic Intifada, titled “Tackling Anti-semitism on campus” to Nicola Dandridge, the head of Universities UK, the representative organization for universities.
Apparently signalling that universities should seek to subject Israeli Apartheid Week events to special scrutiny, Johnson wrote that events which “might take place under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid’ events” must be “properly handled by higher education institutions to ensure that our values, expectations and laws are not violated.”
Johnson’s letter was passed on to the head of each of the UK’s universities.
British university staff are also being told to “manage” pro-Palestine events on campus as part of the government’s controversial Prevent anti-extremism strategy, Middle East Eyereported.
In addition, pro-Israel organizations lobbied universities directly, urging them to cancel Israeli Apartheid Week events and organized mass letter writing campaigns. According to an email newsletter it sent out, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a pro-Israel organization, met with several universities to call for the cancellation of events.
Apparently urged on by pro-Israel groups, the Charity Commission, the regulating body for UK charities, sent intimidating emails to student unions at many of the universities where Israeli Apartheid Week was taking place.
Having spoken to different student organizers and student union officers, it is clear the commission asked unions a series of questions about Israeli Apartheid Week. This included insisting that unions reconsider the “suitability of invited speakers” and urging them to take extra measures to ensure that Israeli Apartheid Week events were lawful.
As part of my organizing on Israeli Apartheid Week, I’ve been speaking to members of the Israeli Apartheid Week UK committee and to organizers on campuses across the country. The way in which universities and some student unions reacted to this external pressure were often dangerously repressive and outright bizarre. They included the following:
At University College London, management forbade a planned street theatre event on the grounds that risk assessment forms had not been filled in on time.
At Kings College London, there was a heavy presence of university security officials inside an event and, in a highly unusual move, the speakers were given a lengthy “security briefing.”
Student organizers at Leeds were told by their student union that they were not allowed to show any documentary produced by Al-Jazeera or any that featured “emotive music.”
The director of the University of Sussex, Adam Tickell, emailed a statement to all students which said, “we will not tolerate intimidation of anyone for their religious or political opinions about the politics of the Middle East” and claimed that “the language” surrounding Israeli Apartheid Week was “deeply upsetting.” Students I talked to believed this was an attempt to intimidate them for their political opinions about the Middle East.
Several universities sent official observers to events or organized their own recording of events for monitoring purposes.
Yet despite all this, Israeli Apartheid Week events still took place at more than 30 campuses.
US spoken word artist and organizer Aja Monet and South African anti-apartheid veteran and academic Farid Esack spoke to hundreds of people at events at Kings College London, the University of Manchester and the University of Sussex.
Monet also performed at a packed out cultural event in London alongside Palestinian spoken word artist and organizer Rafeef Ziadah and Moroccan band N3rdistan.
Abed Salayma from Hebron-based group Youth Against Settlements spoke out against Israeli apartheid at Portsmouth, University College London, Goldsmiths, Brunel and several Scottish universities.
At the University of Oxford, talks were given by Palme d’Or winning director Ken Loach and Professor Avi Shlaim.
The Israel lobby had clearly set its sights on the complete cancellation of Israeli Apartheid Week in the UK.
Indeed, the Board of Deputies of British Jews sent out an email claiming credit for some of the cancellations of events and other repressive measures enacted by universities.
The fact that inspiring, impressive and well attended events still took place across the country is down to the way in which students, as well as many student unions, stood up to university management and firmly pushed back against the repression.
It’s also significant that academics across the country wrote emails to management and brought up concerns about repression in their departmental meetings. More than 250 academics signed an open letter published in The Guardian denouncing the campaign of repression.
Prominent anti-Palestinian activist David Collier appeared disappointed that the campaign of repression largely failed, writing “despite one or two cancellations, the government, the university, and elements of our own leadership are letting us down.”
It’s clear that attempts to repress Palestine solidarity organizing won’t stop students standing up for Palestinian rights.
In a statement, the Israeli Apartheid Week UK organizing committee said that although the restrictions “created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation on university campuses” attempts to silence the Palestine solidarity movement would fail.
“Freedom of expression is at stake here not only for campaigning around Palestinian rights, but social justice campaigning more broadly,” the committee said. “The attacks on Palestine campaigning must be situated within today’s overall current political context which facilitates discrimination towards marginalised groups.”
The committee insisted that “no amount of external meddling to shut down or censor IAW events will work – we will continue to uphold the right to campaign on university campuses and advocate for justice and freedom.”
Anti-Zionism is deliberately conflated with anti-Semitism to suppress legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies
There is no denying that from time to time anti-Semitism raises its ugly head in the UK, as it does in many other countries.
What is striking, however, about contemporary Britain is the use of anti-Semitism as a political tool to silence legitimate criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government and the collusion of members of the political establishment in this process.
A word on definitions is in order.
The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin defined an anti-Semite as someone who hates Jews more than is strictly necessary.
This definition has its humorous side but it does not take us very far. A simpler definition of an anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews as Jews.
An anti-Zionist, on the other hand, is someone who opposes Israel as an exclusively Jewish state or challenges the Zionist colonial project on the West Bank.
Israeli propagandists deliberately, yes deliberately, conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in order to discredit, bully, and muzzle critics of Israel; in order to suppress free speech; and in order to divert attention from the real issues: Israeli colonialism, Israel’s apartheid, its systematic violation of the human rights of Palestinians, and its denial of their right to independence and statehood. The propagandists persistently present an anti-racist movement (anti-Zionism) as a racist one (anti-Semitism).