Note: The following piece was originally published in the Student Newspaper on 4 April 2016.
Thursday night at an Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) Student Council meeting a motion was passed with 249 votes for, 153 against, to support BDS. Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions, is a controversial movement to boycott products, companies and institutions that “profit from or are implicated in the violation of Palestinian rights.”
The attendance of over 400 students at a student council meeting is a big win for campus democracy, but the imminent implementation of BDS is a great loss for the student body at large. I was lucky enough to take one of the speeches against the motion, speaking alongside Brianna Sommer, President of the Jewish Society. There are thousands of arguments for and against BDS, but I’d like to explain why it’s specifically harmful and divisive on campus.
In my year as a sabbatical officer I’ve witnessed a horrific rise in anti-Semitism on university campuses all over the UK. Unsurprisingly, the speeches in favour of BDS were quick to silence cries of anti-Semitism, claiming that BDS isn’t meant to harm Jewish students, and is about the liberation of Palestinians.
The main speeches naturally focused on injustices faced by Palestinian people, but did this by attacking Israel’s economy and society, and by extension, the people of Israel, rather than the government. The motion also delegitimises Israel’s fundamental right to exist by calling it the “declared State of Israel,” an anti-Semitic statement by nature. Whatever people believe the aims of BDS to be, that doesn’t change the evidence of it having a negative effect on campus, and the fact that the concerns of many Jewish and Israeli students are being continually ignored.
I’m proud of the work that student unions do for women, BME, LGBT+ and disabled groups of students. However, the ignorance of the struggles that Jewish students face on campus is astounding from people who fight so hard for the liberation of other oppressed groups. Lecturing Jewish students on what is or is not anti-Semitic undermines their lived experiences, and goes against the basic liberation principles. I wouldn’t let a man tell me what is and isn’t sexist, for example.
Last year after a BDS vote at the University of California, swastikas were painted on a Jewish fraternity. In October 2015, at the University of Birmingham, there were posters pinned up all over campus that said “Hitler was right.” Most recently, the vice-chair of Oxford Labour Students resigned from his post with allegations that some members “had a problem with Jews.” One of those members, James Elliot, understood to be at the centre of the inquiry about harassment of Jewish students, was recently elected as the full-time Disabled Students’ Officer at the National Union of Students. Anti-Semitism has often been present in radical left-wing politics, and now in the Momentum faction of the Labour Party as well.
I am deeply concerned about the marginalisation of Jewish and Israeli students on campus, and will continue to do everything I can to fight this. We cannot let our students take the brunt of people’s anger towards the Israeli government.