Scared away as hate grows at SOAS

JC investigation uncovers wave of intimidation and harassment at university


The text message arrived at 7:30am, just a few hours before my appointment with the Jewish students.

Could we meet away from the university, they asked, as they felt "uncomfortable" about being on campus.

This is the reality for a number of Jewish students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in central London.

Since SOAS's students' union launched a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign in January, day-to-day life has become increasingly difficult for the handful of Jews and pro-Israel students on the campus.

An incident this week in which one Jewish student was told "why don't you and your family f*** off to Israel" was just one example in the series of abuse and intimidation they have faced.

They have avoided buying meals in the union, stayed away from lectures, and witnessed their Israel Society being hijacked by pro-boycott activists.

Last week's poll was timed to coincide with Israel Apartheid Week and saw 1,283 students vote in favour of breaking SOAS's ties with Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Cleaners and lecturers were invited to vote in what was termed a "referendum". The result has no legal standing and is unlikely to be implemented.

Leading the campaign against the boycott was Jewish Society president Moselle Paz Solis and economics undergraduate Avrahum Sanger. Their text message last Friday morning came after a series of abusive and intimidatory comments followed their organising of a pro-Israel event last Wednesday.

Mr Sanger explained: "After the event, I just couldn't go in on Thursday morning. I decided I wasn't going to my lecture and tutorial since I felt intimidated to show my face on campus.

"It is impossible to win this campaign. As soon as you speak up and give an opposing view to what the union holds, you are isolated and treated with hostility."

The pair had organised a debate featuring pro-Israel speakers Yossi Shain and Gabriel Brahm, on Israel's right to exist and on antisemitism within the boycott movement.

Ms Paz Solis said: "There was a lot of heckling. Students from the 'yes' campaign started posting papers saying 'vote BDS' on the window, knowing we were there, and laughing."

An Israeli television channel filmed the packed event but was told to stop recording by the union, which said prior authorisation had not been agreed.

Mr Sanger said: "As soon as we left, the 'yes' campaigners were waiting for us outside and they had their cameras out and they were trying to provoke people."

The union ordered the anti-boycotters to hand over their own video footage of the debate. Worried it would be edited and made public, the pro-Israel students refused.

During my visit to SOAS last Friday, I saw the walls of a student lounge in the union covered with pro-boycott campaign posters. Anti-Israel flyers littered the table tops.

I had persuaded Ms Paz Solis and Mr Sanger to accompany me but they refused to go near the stall which displayed a banner "SOAS sets the precedent, vote yes BDS referendum".

Ms Paz Solis said: "I don't even dare to go in the junior common room because it's full of their propaganda.

"Yesterday I was starving and I could have gone to the shop to get a kosher sandwich, but I preferred waiting another two hours to go home.

"You don't know who you are going to encounter or if they are going to start having a go at you. They are very confrontational and in your face. You just don't feel comfortable."

Ms Paz Solis said when the anti-boycott campaign began it had a group of 20 supporters, but because of the increasingly hostile environment, only five supporters now remain. She has received support from the StandWithUs group and Academic Friends of Israel.

The Union of Jewish Students has been advising the JSoc members, but some Jewish students told me they feel not enough has been done to support them.

In a statement, UJS said: "We unequivocally condemn the use of academic boycotts against Israel along with all other forms of BDS.

"This referendum is the latest attempt to lobby the university to adopt a measure that will isolate its own students and disrupt those whose studies, in the name of academic freedom and debate, are dependent on the institution's links with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem."

UJS said the pro-Israel campaigners' efforts represented a "great achievement" in a "hostile environment".

Second-year Jewish student Spencer Lauffer was a "no" campaigner. He said: "At the end of a union meeting I thought I was going to get beaten up. They were discussing BDS. I walked out with the camera on my phone switched on because I thought I was going to get punched in the face and I would be able to record it.

"It was very hostile. One of the speakers had ranted about Israel not having the right to exist and there was a hostile environment in the meeting. We were around five people up against 40 to 50.

"Since the campaign I have been avoiding campus. I used to go to the union bar, but I've just been going in for lectures and tutorials and then straight back home."

It is not only Jewish students who have felt the effects of an aggressive campaign.

One Muslim undergraduate, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had decided not to vote 'no' because of fears university staff would find out and mark down his work.

"I feel intimidated, I was scared into not voting - it's nothing physical, but there is pressure and a social stigma attached. If I voted 'no', my friends would probably find it really awkward to speak with me. I would be labelled a Zionist," he explained.

The SOAS union's history of anti-Israel activism is lengthy. In 2005 the union became one of the first in Britain to endorse a boycott. No Israeli products have been sold in the union shop since.

It is believed that the Israel Society was hijacked by anti-Israel activists as long ago as 2006. Last week the JC revealed how a mature student was asked to leave the society after expressing disbelief over members' discussions on how to implement a boycott.

In response to the claims of intimidation, student union co-presidents Georgie Roberston, David Suber and Kabir Joshi, told the JC in a statement: "To our knowledge, this is not the case. All debates and communications about the referendum were fairly balanced and the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns were given equal space to campaign.

"The union facilitated a safe and inclusive environment in which this important topic could be debated, and encouraged all students to engage and vote.

"The union has a zero tolerance stance on bullying, harassment and discrimination, and we encourage all students who have experienced this to report it via our complaints procedure so that any allegations can be investigated and appropriate action taken."

Ms Paz Solis and Mr Sanger are now considering taking legal action against the union and have taken advice from UK Lawyers for Israel.

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