University campuses across England have been the scenes of furious anti-Israel demonstrations as students staged co-ordinated “occupation” sit-ins and caused lectures to be cancelled.
The disruption began at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on January 13. By this week, at least 17 universities had been targeted.
A number of university authorities took a hard line, saying the occupations constituted trespass, but others allowed the actions to continue unhindered.
Yair Zivan, Union of Jewish Students campaigns director, said the protests had achieved little other than to create “a nasty atmosphere on campuses”.
Last Wednesday, Nottingham University’s main politics building was covered in “Free Palestine” posters and students occupied a lecture hall.
They were visited by Lib Dem peeress Baroness Tonge on Saturday but security guards stopped her from entering the building and she was forced to speak to protestors through a window. She expressed the hope that action could spread to “every single campus”.
A counter-protest was organised by the university’s Jewish Society, bringing around 100 students out in support of Israel.
Security guards forcibly ended the sit-in on Sunday evening after first turning off the electricity in the occupied theatre. When that approach failed, a dozen protestors were carried out after repeatedly being asked to leave peacefully.
A university spokesman said it had been “patient and tolerant” but that those involved in the occupation did not have the right to disrupt lectures “indefinitely”.
Former Nottingham JSoc chair Sami Abrahams said: “Nottingham is not the biggest JSoc but when we feel threatened we stand up for ourselves and for Israel.
“The sit-in has created an atmosphere where we do not feel comfortable going into shared buildings on campus. There’s a feeling that this is only the end of round one and that we may have won this battle but there is more coming.”
A KCL student said that the sit-in at King’s College, London had spilled over to specific antisemitism.
“Someone from my course wrote ‘kill the Jews’ on my Facebook profile. Later he said he didn’t know I was Jewish. In public someone said to me, ‘I think all the Israelis are crazy and so are the f***ing Jews’.
“People have the right to free speech, but on campus this is not acceptable.”
The occupations followed an almost identical pattern, with protestors taking control of lecture halls, setting up websites reporting their progress, and issuing demands to their universities.
The majority asked for the condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza, provision of academic aid there, fundraisers for humanitarian aid, scholarships for Palestinian students and the imposition of sanctions on Israeli goods sold on campus. It is thought supporters of the Stop the War coalition helped co-ordinate the action.
Cambridge’s sit-in ended last Thursday when the university effectively threatened to remove protestors for trespass if they did not leave by a set time. The university also rejected their demands.
At LSE, the protestors declared a “huge victory for Palestinian students” following a week-long campaign.
The university agreed to waive application fees for Gaza and West Bank students “directly affected by the conflict”, to create a “Palestinian territories” country page on its website, and to arrange a fundraising day in support of Medical Aid for Palestinians.
Bradford University agreed to investigate the “ethical background” of food and drink served on campus, and promised to “explore the feasibility of a twinning link with the Islamic University of Gaza”.
Other universities followed guidelines from Universities UK, the representative body for the executive heads of higher education institutes.
It advised members to toe a diplomatic line, calling for an end to the conflict “in and beyond Gaza” and said universities should be “a force for understanding, tolerance and respect between peoples”.
Mr Zivan added: “We would challenge the impression that the protests have been successful. I do not think that has been the case at all. Where asked about ethical investments and divestment from Israel, almost all universities gave the same response, that they would look into it. That essentially means ‘no’.
“Universities have to take responsibility and make clear what they are doing to protect Jewish students. We have written to every vice-chancellor in the country, making that point.”
Protests also took place at Sheffield Hallam; Leeds; Queen Mary College London; Birmingham; Oxford; Essex; Manchester Metropolitan; Warwick; Northumbria; Kingston; and Sussex.