Attention was back on the campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign last week when Oxford’s Student Union rejected a motion in support of a blanket BDS policy, a motion that would then have been taken to the National Union of Students conference in April.
The vote fell by a staggering seven to one margin. But this rejection is not resounding throughout British universities. There are currently a number of student unions that support some form of Israel boycott; targets over the past few years have included Carmel Agrexco, Eden Springs, Veolia, Ahava and Sodastream.
Thankfully, despite attempts to lobby university authorities and student unions to end ties with these companies, most are still standing. Nevertheless, it begs the question: why has BDS become a key tenet of student activism? A concerted effort by the normally non-cohesive BDS movement, or just students, drawn in by the insidious rhetoric that surrounds the Israel-Palestine conflict on campus, seeking a way to take action?
Student unions have proud histories of being politically active, and that’s no bad thing. What is so fundamentally wrong with blanket or institutionalised boycotts, however, is that they don’t leave anyone with space to explore the complexities of the situation or make decisions for themselves. They leave no room for engagement or understanding, and therefore no room to find a solution.
With all of the complexities that come along with a boycott motion at a university, one has to wonder what the point is. Why do students plough so much energy into BDS?
Perhaps one reason is that, often, there is no constructive alternative for their cause.
There could and should be. Instead of boycotts, there could be more motions that support Israel and Palestine living freely side by side. Instead of pushing for divestment, there could easily be more motions that see students pledging to help the Palestinian economy. For example, students could import goods from Palestinian businesses, such as the Ramallah-based Taybeh brewery, which exhibits its beer at international festivals. As it stands, students rarely choose to support Palestinian businesses; they see the only means of supporting Palestinians as not supporting Israel.
Likewise, there could be more motions backing grass-roots groups working for a two-state solution. The options are there.
In reality, such efforts are unlikely to engage the unengaged student, either because they don’t care where products come from, or because they hear the words Israel and Palestine and simply walk away. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
Boycott advocates often don’t take into account the impact their campaigns have, not just on Israelis, but on Jewish students. When their unions back a boycott, many Jewish students see it as an assault on their identity and their ability to express themselves and their political, cultural and indeed religious identity. In the 2011 JPR Jewish Student Survey, the majority of respondents had visited Israel. More than half had very positive feelings toward it. Israel is a core part of many Jewish students’ identities, no matter what shape it takes.
Sustained BDS campus activism should be a concern for those trying to maintain good relations between different groups. If the BDS activists were truly interested in the rights of Palestinians to statehood, they would be putting some of these alternatives on the table, rather than focusing on delegitimising Israel. Sadly, until they do we will be stuck in this stalemate of misunderstanding and tension on our campuses.