Over the last couple of years, there has been a fightback from those who rightly believe the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement demonises Israel and promotes an agenda dividing people, undermining the voices of peace. It does this by disrespecting international culture and dialogue, whilst promoting a vision of hate, whereby being Israeli is treated like a crime. For all of us who support a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians which is aided by a greater understanding of the vibrancy of Israel’s culture, it is heartening to see that the BDS movement is being challenged.
One example of a victorious fightback was the decision of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (‘EUSA’) Trustee Board to refuse to enforce the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) policy passed by its Student Council at a meeting on 31 March 2016.
The motion, which was passed by 243 to 153 votes with 22 abstentions, was held in a way that raised serious questions about the democratic legitimacy of the vote. The motion was only passed by 1.19% of the whole Edinburgh University student body, severely weakening its democratic mandate.
Furthermore, the debate on the motion was held in an environment that undermined freedom of expression. Imogen Wilson, a music student and Vice-President of academic student affairs at EUSA faced being forced out of the meeting for holding up her hand and shaking her head to show her disagreement with the motion during the heated debate. Although a motion to have her removed from the room was voted down by 33 votes to 18, the fact that there was even a vote on this showed that those opposing the motion were having their freedom of expression undermined and in doing so were not given a safe space to express their opinion.
In response to EUSA’s decision, to overturn the motion the Israel Engagement Society at Edinburgh University released the following statement:
IES strongly believes that BDS is a dangerous, divisive and discriminatory campaign tactic that risks undermining peace talks and cohesion on campus, and made this clear in its representations to EUSA in conjunction with other groups of concerned students. EUSA’s dropping of the policy follows a precedent set by other universities, recognising the illegality of BDS and the significant risk of increasing intolerance against minority groups on campus that it poses.
While the BDS policy will not be enacted, EUSA’s website will continue to show the policy as having passed at Student Council. IES notes that though any student could have attended the meeting and voted, 1.19% of matriculated students did so, and the room’s capacity of 250 (0.7% of electors) was inadequate for the debate to be heard. This makes the mandate of such a divisive motion highly questionable.
BDS was clearly passed by a broken democratic system. This will be revised by EUSA in September, with a new rule requiring that contentious issues are taken to a full campus-wide online ballot. IES believes this policy was brought forward in March so that pro-BDS groups could circumvent this rule without needing to bring this to the attention of a wider body of students who may have rejected it.
Responding to the verdict, IES Vice Chair (Political) Theo Robertson-Bonds said: “Singling out and boycotting the world’s only Jewish state is a reckless, divisive policy that does nothing to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am delighted that EUSA’s Trustee Board has taken this issue seriously and ensured our campus remains safe and inclusive for all students by refusing to enact it. IES will continue to work with the university and EUSA to promote peace and discussion around a two-state solution on campus.”
IES is fully supportive of reasoned discussion and debate on campus over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and will vigorously oppose any attempts to silence debate. An inclusive students’ association should not take such a divisive position, and IES will continue to campaign against any groups at Edinburgh trying to force EUSA into this position in future.