Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Pro-Palestinian encampments launched in Oxford call for Israel divestment

University of Oxford students have set up encampments outside the Pitt Rivers Museum in solidarity with Palestine. 

Demonstrators, under the name of Oxford Action for Palestine (OA4P), occupied the lawns of Pitt Rivers Museum. They began their occupation around 4 am on May 6th of April. 

The group released a statement on Instagram calling on members of the University to join the encampment, and for Oxford to “sever its institutional relationships that facilitate the genocide and occupation of the Palestinian people.”

The group urges the University to divest from Israel, including disclosing all finances, divesting from “Israeli–genocide apartheid and occupation”, overhauling its investment policy, and stopping banking with Barclays. 

It also demands the University to “boycott Israeli genocide apartheid and occupation” and
“support Palestinian-led rebuilding of education in Gaza.” 

A number of faculty members issued a statement of support of the encampment, including historian Avi Shlaim, philosopher Amia Srinivasan, and Middle Eastern studies professor Walter Armbrust.

One signatory, Dr Katherine Lebow (Associate Professor of Modern History), commented to The Oxford Student: “This is such a complex issue that it’s hard to provide a quick soundbite. In some ways I see the horrifying war on Gaza as the final battle of World War II – one in which, tragically, Palestinians are paying the price for Europe’s long history of genocidal antisemitism. But this issue is also very personal for me, since Israel’s actions profoundly conflict with my own sense of Jewish identity and ethics.”

Protests nationally and internationally

This encampment follows a nationwide movement in the US of pro-Palestine protests and sit-ins in colleges that have seen thousands of college students arrested for holding out in encampments. Such protests have inspired similar movements in the United Kingdom.

On April 17, a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” at Columbia University for the university to divest from Israel. The next day, Columbia President Minouche Shafiq authorised the New York Police Department to arrest 113 protesters and said that all students participating in the encampment had been suspended. 

Speaking to The Oxford Student, Kendall Gardner said that they “learned a lot from protests in the US” and that they had been in contact with students from Columbia University. She added that it was “amazing to see how all that information” was being used to build a “movement” worldwide.

At a protest against Nancy Pelosi outside the Oxford Union, students used the slogan, “Disclose, divest: we will not stop, we will not rest”. The slogan was borrowed from students in Columbia University, and the protests were partially in solidarity with those demonstrations.

This marks the latest action by a UK university following protests and occupations at University College London, Goldsmiths University, University of Leeds, and University of Bristol.

Students at the University of Cambridge also set up an encampment outside King’s College today, which is also calling for Cambridge to disclose and divest its holdings in Israel.

Protests in Oxford

The encampments follow several pro-Palestine protests at the University. These included the protest against Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the Oxford Union, which was attended by hundreds of students, and other demonstrations across a number of locations in Oxford.

At the encampments, protesters have used chants including: “Free Palestine”, “One, we are the people, two, we won’t be silenced, three, stop the bombing now”, “Ceasefire Now”, as well as Arabic chants.

These chants included: “Huriya huriya”, translating to freedom freedom; “Falasteen Arabiya”, translating to Palestine is Arab; “Israel Haramiyya” , translating to Israel is a thief; and “Intifada shabiya”, to popular uprising.

Signs with written statements such as “Israel has destroyed every university in Gaza” and “Oxford Action for Palestine” have also been used.

A spokesperson for the encampments said: “The atrocities in Gaza in recent months cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather as a continuation and escalation of settler colonialism with historic and current ties to the University of Oxford.”

“As students, faculty, and members of the community that participate in and uphold this institution, we have a unique and specific responsibility to hold them to account; and demand they, at a bare minimum, end their active complicity in the genocide of the Palestinian people.”

Jewish students

Speaking to The Oxford Student about occupying the space as a Jewish person, Gardner added: “I feel really proud to uphold a legacy of Jewish resistance to oppression, wherever it may be. And I am proud that my ancestors were fighting against these exact same types of policies.”

“I obviously feel […]like a troubling sense […] in my heart about the way that the Jewish community has aligned itself with Israel, I find it to be against all the values that I was taught as a Jewish person.”

When asked about the protests potentially being labelled as anti-Semitic, Gardner said that those accusations “[detract] attention from the very intense and brutal discrimination that Jewish people face across the world.”

She added: “When you call something like this anti-Semitic, this like beautiful space where I feel so safe […] that detracts attention away from the real anti-Semitism that I do face in the world as a Jewish person.”

She also encouraged people to “rock up”, and that this may “really change your mind about things”.

Oxford University Jewish Society said: “Now, with the encampment seeking to mimic what has been seen across United States campuses, we are deeply concerned that there will be further escalation in the vilification of Jewish students in Oxford. We maintain that Jewish students deserve to have our concerns taken seriously and in earnest, we call upon the University to act upon any endorsement, justification or glorification of violence against Jews anywhere.”

“We remain committed to respond to any incidents of antisemitism and are here to support Jewish students.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Jewish student added that they thought it was “yet to be seen what happens” regarding the encampments. They acknowledged that “the Jewish student population in Oxford has always been diverse in opinions on this”, and said that they had “no issue [with] the protests as long as we don’t see the type of antisemitism that was present in some of the U.S. encampments.”

They also added that “these protests need to be student-led on both sides”, stating that external organisations “tend to escalate the situation and lead to violence. But largely, as long they remain peaceful and conscious of any allegations that may appear, as a Jewish student, I don’t take issue.”

The University’s response

A University spokesperson said:

“We are aware of the ongoing demonstration by members of our University community. We respect our students and staff members right to freedom of expression in the form of peaceful protests. We ask everyone who is taking part to do so with respect, courtesy and empathy.

“Oxford University’s primary focus is the health and safety of the University community, and to ensure any impact on work, research and learning, including student exams, is minimised. As we have stressed in our student and staff communications there is no place for intolerance at the University of Oxford.”

“The Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum remain open.”

Gardner stated that her hope is that this protest produces “full divestment of the University of Oxford from Israeli apartheid.”

This story is breaking and will be updated as further information becomes available. 

Reporting by Martin Alfonsin Larsen, Gaspard Rouffin, and Valida Pau. Images by Cameron Samuel Keys.