Zoe Strimpel

Universities have lost control. Why are they so weak?

UCL’s refusal to stand up to students sends a terrible signal which makes things even worse


Anti-Israel student activists protest Israel's war in Gaza at Oxford University (Photo: Laurel Chor/Getty Images)

June 11, 2024 16:06

In the three-and-a-half months since I last visited the UCL library, much has happened in transatlantic campus life. Specifically, the introduction of a new paradigm of anti-Israel student shenanigans, following the widely-publicised and shocking scenes at Columbia, UCLA and other American universities in April, when protesters set up encampments on university property, took over buildings, heckled police, and refused to budge – all while waving antisemitic placards, yelling antisemitic slogans from loudhailers and defacing private property with an unholy melange of black, white, green and red.

Anti-Israel activism by students claiming to be invested in the Palestinian cause is hardly new. But the levels of organisation of this lot, their neat tents, their documents, their fans in mainstream politics, their smug relish at taunting police and, most sinister of all, their explicit endorsement of Hamas and Hezbollah, marked a new departure.

Institutional spinelessness before screaming students is not new either. But the complicity, or fear – or both – of universities in these occupations has been nothing short of spectacular.

All of which explains the scene that met me at the weekend. Unlike before, the university gates were closed, with all visitors having to pass through the office. Once in, all you can see in any direction are the feverish vandalisms of antisemitic anti-Zionism. There is a sea of tents, some draped in keffiyehs, and a forest of signs and banners done up in the garish green, black and red colours of today’s fashionable Jew-hating. “Killing the flowers will not delay spring, We will free Palestine in our lifetime”; “From the river to the sea, palestine will be free”. (On one sign, next to the ubiquitous watermelon symbol, I saw a picture of a tree, a possible reference to the widely-popularised Hadith that says: “Jews will hide behind a tree or a rock and the rock or the tree will say to the Muslim: There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”) There were leaflets vilifying Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely and maps showing a fantasy history of “Palestine”.

Still, I couldn’t help but titter: the tent encampment was empty on Saturday and deserted on Sunday, evidence that the activists, fanatical though they are, don’t work on weekends (perhaps keeping to union-mandated hours). It also showed they have complete assurance that, despite being in central London, next to dozens of homeless people using tents for actual shelter and not posturing and partying, their illegal infrastructure would be respected by the very university they are intimidating.

The first thing you see, though, are the big three letters of UCL’s name, a tripartite sculpture in pale blue that confidently welcomes those who enter this most esteemed university, a powerhouse of science and medicine.

Except now it is a grisly mess of foaming anti-Israel graffiti, and the U has been turned into a G, for Genocide. It couldn’t be uglier. The two white boards encasing the U are scrawled in a thick black G, with blood dripping off it. Inside the G is scrawled three demands: 1. Divest 2. Condemn and 3. Pledge. Under this: “Michael Spence, how many kids have you killed today?” plus a clown face. (Michael Spence is UCL’s provost and vice-chancellor.)

Under that is “Long Live Refaat Alareer”. Alareer, killed in an Israeli airstrike in December, was a Gaza-born poet and activist who described October 7 as “legitimate and moral” and “exactly like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” and was a key voice in denying the sexual violence of October 7, saying it was merely used to “justify the Gaza genocide”. He was the chap that asked, in relation to claims Hamas put a kibbutz baby in an oven, “with or without baking powder?”

The C and L are just as ugly. These are not an aesthetically aware bunch. “Free Free Palestine”, “Shame on UCL” stickers, “end apartheid” and the especially bratty and menacing, but also mistaken: “Whose campus? Our campus.”

Shocked at the brazenness of this vandalism – its sheer selfish bombastic hostility, its incivility, its criminality, its insult to any idea of a university that may be home to people of other views, or God forbid even Israelis – I asked the only vaguely official-looking person around, a visitor information agent: “Are they going to do something about this?”

I was told they “can’t” because of the “protesters”. I asked why not. Again, he said: “They can’t do anything”, explaining that the activists had threatened to deface the whole magisterial main face of the university, the columned Wilkins building, home of the main library, if their vandalism was touched.

In other words: in a campus culture that punishes students mis-gendering and offers trigger warnings for Dickens, antisemitism is allowed to flourish in plain sight, loudly, explicitly and confidently.

Is it trepidation? Is it moral confusion? Is it agreement? Whatever it is that is stopping UCL from standing up for its own property, it’s sending a wildly troubling signal.

The protesters have it right about one thing: UCL and the other universities that allow such displays (Cambridge, Newcastle, Durham, Leeds) are complicit in crimes. Except they aren’t crimes against Palestinians but against Jews. And in their refusal to stand up to antisemitic expressions of the Palestinian cause, which really is genocidal (“from the river to the sea”), they are as bad as the protesters say. Just for a wildly different reason.

June 11, 2024 16:06

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