Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

University sets out new response to pro-Palestinian encampment

The University of Oxford outlined a response today to the pro-Palestinian encampment outside the Pitt Rivers Museum, in which it did not commit to several demands made by the encampment while affirming the right to protest and freedom of speech.

In an email sent to all University students and staff, Vice-Chancellor Irene Tracey stated that while she was “grateful that protests have been largely peaceful”, the University had heard directly from University members that “they have been feeling fearful or uncomfortable as a result” of them.

On Saturday 11 May, six men arrived at the encampment and disrupted a vigil, while directing abuse at several members. Police and protesters engaged in de-escalation, while the men shouted such statements as “Israel we love you”, “terrorist sympathisers”, and “You’re not Jewish, fake Jew… what the f*** is that on your head.”

She also stated that “we do not accept any hostility or intolerance directed at our members”, and urged students to remain ‘compassionate”.

Tracey added that in “times such as these, we must work together as a community” and that as an academic institution, the University must remain “committed to freedom of speech” and “[embracing] peaceful protest”. 

She also stated that the conflict in Gaza “is causing unimaginable suffering”, and added that she knew it was a “challenging time” for many at the University. The University response also stated that “[senior] leaders of the University have been in regular contact with a range of student and staff groups”, and it also stated that there is “no place for antisemitism, Islamophobia or unlawful discrimination”.

The University’s response stated that they had “regularly” updated statements to express “horror at the Hamas attacks… and at the devastation inflicted on Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military response”.

This comes as university leaders were summoned for a meeting by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last Thursday to tackle and de-escalate antisemitism on campus. 

At that meeting, he instructed university leaders to ensure that universities “remain bastions of tolerance, where debate takes place with respect for others and where every student feels safe” and take “personal responsibility” to protect Jewish students. 

Responses to key encampment demands

Tracey’s statement was accompanied by a response on the University webpage that outlined responses to the six demands made by those at the Pitt Rivers encampment.

Notably, Tracey did not discuss having entered negotiations or discussions with the members of the encampment.

These demands included asking the University to “divest from Israeli-genocide, apartheid and occupation”, disclose information on all of its finances, overhaul its investment policy, stop banking with Barclays, commit to rebuilding the educational sector in Gaza, and boycott Israeli “genocide, apartheid, and occupation”.

Addressing divestment, the University said that it “owns units of the Oxford Endowment Fund (OEF) and does not own shares in companies directly”, and did not outline plans for divestment, which is a key demand from the encampment protesters.

Crucially, it stated that it abides by ESG guidelines and all legal regulations,  and has a “clear policy on investing in arms” that it follows. 

The University also stated it was “open” in publishing information on its finances.

Oxford’s University of Sanctuary status was also highlighted, stating that it is “committed to being a place of welcome for people who have been forcibly displaced”. It also outlined several “practical ways” in which the University could make a “positive difference to the Palestinian people”.

On banking with Barclays, the University stated that it uses their services due to its “large, complex financial needs”, adding that it engages with the bank regularly on issues such as “net-zero, biodiversity” and the “conflict in Gaza”.

Discussing its investment policy, it said that it has “chosen at various instances to place restrictions on sectors in which it will not hold investments on ethical grounds”.

These statements come amidst several academic institutions, including Trinity College Dublin, pledging to look into divestment from Israeli investments. Trinity specifically stated that it would “endeavour” to divest from all firms with investments in “other Israeli companies” alongside the ones that have activities in occupied territories.

Tracey ended her email by stating that the University remains “committed to the constructive dialogues we have been having regarding our response to events in Gaza.”

In a statement, Oxford Action for Palestine said it was “severely disappointed” by the University response, alleging that it “neither substantially addresses a single one of our demands, nor does it indicate any willingness to pursue further discussion.”

It also alleged that it does not “address [their] direct requests to negotiate, which were issued last week”. The statement also condemned the University for saying their protest had been “largely peaceful” and not mentioning hostilities from the public on Saturday last week, saying that “the University’s silence on the issue of Gaza makes us actively unsafe […] [it] allows the Prime Minister’s blatant lies to fuel hatred and violence towards our community, including the Jewish members of our community.”

The group highlighted that the coalition has “quadrupled” over the last week, with 500 academic signatories in support of their protest. They also said that they have a “negotiations team and are prepared to meet”, adding that “Gaza cannot wait.

Their statement ends by asking the “Administration to understand this moment in history and the risks the University is taking by refusing to act.”

This story is developing, and this article will be updated to reflect new developments.