Oxford and the BDS campaign

Last week, JCRs and MCRs across Oxford voted overwhelmingly to leave OUSU’s name off the NUS motion to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. However, the BDS motion will still be discussed at the NUS conference this year, with endorsements from the student unions at the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield and the University of London Union.

At first glance, this is worrying. BDS, an extremist movement calling for a boycott of Israeli cultural and academic institutions, products and companies, is hardly supported by mainstream Palestinian activists or the Palestinian leadership itself. (The most prominent Palestinian politician who is involved in BDS is Mustafa Barghouti, whose party received less than 3% of the vote in the most recent elections.) Larry Summers, while President of Harvard University, called BDS “anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent.” Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, called it “grotesque and offensive.”

However, I take the decisions from Manchester, Sheffield and London as evidence that students don’t pay much attention to their student unions, not that they agree with BDS founder Omar Barghouti that what the Middle East needs is not a two-state solution but “a Palestine next to a Palestine.”

In nearly every common room where the motion was explained and discussed, it was resoundingly rejected. At Keble, students packed into the JCR keen to debate BDS. After ten minutes of discussion, no one voted in favour of it. (A handful abstained.)

BDS appeals to students who are left-wing and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause by disguising its radical positions in the language of human rights. BDS bills itself on its website as “ a strategy that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice.” Lefty ears perk up at phrases like “people of conscience” and “struggle for justice”, but a closer reading of BDS’ manifesto reveals its true intentions.Buried among BDS’ seemingly innocuous aims of “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel” and “ending Israel’s occupation of Arab lands” is the goal of the “right of return” for all Palestinians who have left Israel since 1948—and their descendants. This aim is not compatible with a two-state solution, and would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

“Those within this university who express support for the BDS movement do not necessarily know what it is,” said Gideon Freud, a third-year involved in the campaign against BDS at St. John’s. “Most of them do not believe in the destruction of the state of Israel, but they seem unaware that this is the BDS’s goal. The BDS movement, in my opinion, manipulates students who want to be politically active by feeding them half-truths.  The BDS uses misinformation to get students to legitimise this illegitimate cause.”

The BDS movement distanced itself from George Galloway after the MP stormed out of a debate on Israel’s West Bank settlements at Christ Church on Wednesday upon learning that his opponent, third-year PPEist Eylon Aslan-Levy, is an Israeli citizen. But the Galloway incident reveals something disturbing about anti-Israeli sentiment and the respectable front pro-Palestine groups can offer extremists with more questionable motives.

“It should make us think when we engage with pro-Palestinian groups about whether they are really interested in constructive engagement and dialogue or whether they will only be pleased when Israel dissolves itself,” said Aslan-Levy. “People should pay and attention and see what’s really going on. Behind the talk for equality is the demand to destroy a UN member state.”

BDS may claim the support of a few student unions as victories or validation, but they should be seen instead as evidence that student unions do a poor job of communicating with their students. “I had absolutely no idea they were voting on this,” said Dave Bennett, a History student at University College London. “I would definitely say the Union is not representative of what students think. People are generally quite apathetic to the whole thing.”

When the issues and their implications are properly debated, BDS is a non-starter. The apparent success it has enjoyed among UK students signifies not an acceptance of the insidious goals and questionable tactics of BDS, but lack of understanding and apathy.