Students fear for safety as rallies grow

By Marcus Dysch and Simon Friend, January 22, 2009
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Joseph Brown, the LSE’s anti-racism officer, demonstrating last week

Joseph Brown, the LSE’s anti-racism officer, demonstrating last week

The fallout from the Gaza conflict has been felt at universities around the country as Jewish students returned to their campuses.

At the London School of Economics, a students’ union anti-racism officer was responsible for an anti-Israel motion and involved in a similar rally.

Joseph Brown was pictured wearing a keffiyeh [traditional Arab head-dress] and “Free Palestine” T-shirt during a protest at the central London campus last week.

He had earlier proposed a motion, which was passed by 219 votes to 154, calling on the university not to “sit quietly while Israel launches yet another violent assault on the caged and oppressed Palestinian people”.

Yair Zivan, Union of Jewish Students’ campaigns director, said it was “unacceptable” that Jewish and Israeli students should be intimidated into feeling unsafe on campuses.

A further protest at LSE saw 25 students occupy a lecture theatre and hand a list of demands to university directors. They included a request for them to condemn Israel’s actions, hold a fundraising day on behalf of the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, and provide five full scholarships for Palestinian students.

Lectures continued at the Old Theatre hall, despite the sit-in. The protestors were allowed to explain why they were there before moving to the side of the stage where they knitted and worked on laptops.

Neither the motion nor the protestors’ list of demands made any mention of Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel.

Aled Dilwyn Fisher, general secretary of LSE students’ union, admitted complaints had been received about Mr Brown’s conduct.

He said: “We are part-time officers, but there are things to consider in terms of how you go about political matters. He has made mistakes, to put it mildly. I’m aware students have been made uncomfortable by his conduct.”

Mr Brown said: “I proposed a political motion to condemn a political action by a state government. My political views have been consistent and for 10 weeks last term I had a very constructive engagement with the Jewish and Israel societies.

“This is not a new [political] position for me. My Jewish and Israeli colleagues, with whom I have worked on campus, have known my views.

“I have sent a message to both societies to meet and reinvigorate the very productive relationship we had last term. I would not like to see that perish because of my continued dedication to the Palestinian cause.”

A spokesman for the university said students had a right to protest “reasonably” and that the sit-in had not disrupted lectures.

Similar action took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies in central London, with 20 students locking themselves in the Brunei Gallery. They also demanded that the university issued a statement condemning Israeli actions.

Professor Paul Webley, SOAS director, said it would be “inappropriate for the school to make any overtly political statement”.

Mr Zivan said: “UJS respects the right to political expression and protest but this shouldn’t come at the expense of the safety and comfort of the wider student body. The type of behaviour we’ve seen at LSE over the past week has been nothing short of bullying and Jewish students deserve better from their university leadership.”

Police are investigating antisemitic literature sent to the University of Manchester’s student union last week. It is believed the documents included Holocaust denial material.

In Leeds, a Jewish student was threatened by a gang who made gun gestures and shouted abuse at him as he prepared for an exam.

Wes Streeting, the president of the National Union of Students, said: “Clearly, there will be students who want to campaign on events in the Middle East. But we do not want legitimate campaigning on campus to spill over into antisemitism.”

Last updated: 12:44pm, January 22 2009