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UK Students Fighting For Universities To Cut Ties With Israeli Apartheid

Above photo: An “Apartheid Off Campus” bus stop action.

“We need to be working bottom-up, because we know that top-down will just not work anymore.”

Apartheid Off Campus is a newly-formed student network fighting to sever the ties between UK universities and the Israeli occupation.

“University students are in a powerful position to campaign in support of Palestinians and against the structures of racism by both challenging/exposing these links and forcing their universities to divest from complicit companies, as well as making their institutions commit to being APARTHEID FREE,” reads the group’s website.

Research recently released by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign shows that UK universities continue to invest over $580 million in companies complicit in Israeli apartheid.

Mondoweiss spoke with five of the network’s student activists about the state of BDS in the United Kingdom, the current political climate, and organizing in the time of COVID-19.

Michael Arria: I wanted to start by talking about how and why this group was formed. 

Kvitka Perehinets, Student at the University of Edinburgh: At its core Apartheid Off Campus (AOC) is a student-led movement that fills this very needed space for student activists in the UK to come together across different university campuses and really unite. AOC came together in May and Huda was the one who initiated it and kind of got us all together. Within a month we had grown to become a pretty large network, with 300 members to date.

We have different regional branches, so we have different regional coordinators that are in touch with students in specific regions of the UK. I myself am a coordinator for Scotland, Yara works in London. We act as a platform that allows students to really be active when it comes to mobilizing, and to use the skills that they’re most comfortable in using in their activism. So, for example, we provide opportunities for writing articles or making podcasts with other people who represent either other movements.

We’re starting a lot of campaigns where we’re targeting universities specifically that have ties, be it material or academic, with companies that are complicit in the ongoing persecution of Palestinians. So, we do a lot of different things and we try to mobilize on all fronts.

Huda Ammori, Graduate from the University of Manchester: AOC was born out of frustration with UK institutions ignoring activists who were campaigning and advocating for Palestinian human rights, and the consistency of universities being complicit in Israel’s apartheid regime through their investments in companies or complicity with Israel’s arms trade. It felt like there was a lot of energy around these issues and a lot of campaigns on campuses, but without a network of coordination and organization between students, a lot of people ended up feeling isolated or less effective overall. So, our idea was to form a network of people who can be connected, who can organize together, who can strategize together, and be coordinated together across the UK so that we can really develop a strategy and a plan to end university complicity with Israeli apartheid.

As Kvitka said, we’re now at 300 members just two months after our launch and over 4,500 followers on social media. It’s a horizontal network that allows students to feel empowered in creating the campaigns themselves and learn from each other as well. When university starts and we come out of the pandemic, we will be able to organize nationally and regionally, and we will already have this massive network of people who align their values and not just students who are from Palestine societies, but students from the LGBTQ society, the Kashmir society, anti-racist society. This is a network that anyone can join as a group or as an individual, any campus. And then hopefully with this network, we can form new campaigns where there aren’t campaigns on campuses. It’s proven to be really successful so far in getting a lot of students engaged and building a campaign to kick apartheid off-campus.

Sayf Abdeen, a Palestinian student at University College London: It’s also worth noting that right now there are resources and information that previously we didn’t have for such an organization to come about. Last year, Palestine Solidarity UK (which is the biggest Palestinian civil society organization in the UK) published a very detailed and thorough database of exactly how every university in the UK is complicit in Israeli apartheid and occupation. Every connection between each university and the occupation is documented.

I think this has helped a lot of students understand the role we play and the role we can play in help bringing justice to the Palestinians.

Yara Derbas, a Palestinian student at SOAS, University of London: AOC has got a lot of research that is published in a database and it makes it much easier for students from any university in the UK to obtain specific information released by universities. This means that they can tailor this campaign on their campus to what suits them most. Some of the universities don’t have specific partnerships with Israeli universities. Right now our campaigns are tailored toward Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but there are some universities that have more suitable campaigns for them, for example, divestment campaigns, if they have connections to a lot of complicit companies. You can find all of that in the database, which helps people build their campaigns.

Does anybody want to talk specifically about any of the campaigns you just mentioned?

Alex, a university student in London: One of the campaigns that we have at the moment is to get universities to end their exchange programs with Hebrew University. They have a campus in East Jerusalem on occupied Palestinian land. We want to try to focus attention on that so that we can make enough noise about this and get the universities to end that program.

We’ve put together a kind of a fake promotion video, kind of mocking the ones that Hebrew University has done with our own kind of script, highlighting each of the issues, the injustices. At the moment we’re in contact with The Guardian and Open Democracy and we’re hoping that they can cover the story because as soon as they pick it up, especially The Guardian, it will get enough attention. We haven’t got much of a response from universities, so what we want to try and do is to use that, build on the fact they haven’t responded, get that out into the mainstream and create enough embarrassment and annoyance so that hopefully they’ll react to that. That’s basically the crux of that campaign.

Yara Derbas: Just to add to that, another update on our Hebrew University academic boycott campaign is that we also wrote a statement as AOC, which calls on all universities to decolonize and commit to tangible decolonizing commitments. They throw around messages all the time to seem progressive and they pride themselves on that and they’re throwing them around a lot lately amidst the Black Lives Matter movement condemnations of racism, and we just find it insulting, offensive and hypocritical. So we asked a lot of student union officers to sign this statement of support for a tangible decolonization effort and we have over 125 signatures so far. That’s a huge, huge win because it’s never really happened before, especially when the issue is centered around Palestine and decolonization.

Huda Ammori: Just to add to that, in addition to getting 125 officers to sign that statement, there were also 90 academics at the University of Manchester who signed a similar statement in response to the school coming out with a statement about being anti-racist and decolonizing. The statement cites the school’s investments in companies that are listed on the UN settlement list and their exchange program with Hebrew University, where they’re sending students to stay on stolen Palestinian land. The statement says they have to end these links in order to truly decolonize.

Yara Derbas: Another thing we did was, a lot of students from the campaign sent letters to their university management and the vice-chancellors, basically telling them about the contract with Hebrew University and why it’s immoral, unethical, why they shouldn’t have this partnership and why they should end the contract now. So that was kind of the first step in this academic boycott campaign and that’s why this network is so crucial because we were able to coordinate amongst ourselves and identify students at the universities that have this partnership because as far as I know, there are twelve universities in the UK that have these partnerships. This work was all much easier to do with a network.

Kvitka Perehinets: We do approach these sorts of things very meticulously and we do get as much factual basis in evidence as we can to make sure that we are standing on solid ground.

I wanted to talk a little about the similarities and differences between campus activism in the United States and campus activism in the United Kingdom when it comes to this issue. Here there were already a lot of very aggressive, organized pro-Israel forces at universities, but the Trump administration has really emboldened them. We’ve seen threats to cut the funding of schools that hold BDS events and a wave of frivolous civil rights lawsuits designed to shut down criticism of Israel on campus. What kind of resistance are you up against at your universities?

Huda Ammori: It’s definitely something that affects Palestine activists in the UK and I think one of the reasons we built AOC is because we’re much stronger together when we’re coordinated and we’re a mass movement. We’re mobilizing on campus to try to change the narrative and be able to react to these kinds of attacks and actually being proactive in our campaigning. So it’s really an attempt to empower students and activists and getting them to understand that we’re stronger together, that our voices don’t need to be silenced, and you don’t need to be campaigning with fear of repercussions because there’s such a big body of like-minded people around you, in your region and also around the country who are willing to tackle these issues.

Kvitka Perehinets: I think some of the things that I’ve experienced on my campus are probably not the worst that could happen. I go to the University of Edinburgh and just about a month ago the IHRA definition of antisemitism was very quietly implemented. It was passed without a student vote, without any kind of light around the fact that it was even being decided on. It was just sort of fairly quietly mentioned on one Facebook page in the middle of the day and not a lot of students knew about. So that was implemented and it instantly put a lot of us into a bit of a shock because for Palestine solidarity societies it means things like Israeli Apartheid Week automatically is something that can be proclaimed as antisemitic. With my society and my university, we will be bringing a motion to the student council and also writing a letter.

Another instance that we had involved an Israeli/Palestinian dialogue society at our university that positions itself as very progressive, but it’s actually just Zionist really. They were going to host a workshop where an IDF soldier was going to come to university and do a workshop with the students. The university raised absolutely no questions about it and it wasn’t until we sat down with the board and pointed to specific policies and the fact they were breaching their own code of conduct, that the event was canceled.

There’s also a lot of instances at universities where BDS motions have been passed by students and then overturned by board members, those sorts of things, but at the same time, I think there’s obviously a lot of opportunities for successes.

Yara Derbas: I think it’s a global phenomenon and there are transnational similarities when it comes to repressing student activism and activism in general. It’s always the oppressed groups who are vilified and it’s evident in UK and US foreign policy. You can see that in The Tory Manifesto from December, which tried to criminalize BDS. This is why grassroots movements are so important. You can always see that and that’s why students are historically at the forefront of movements like this.

I go to SOAS, University of London. I’m in my first year and I’m going to my second. We were inspired to start a new BDS group to focus solely on action-based campaigning and direct action to specifically call on our university to end their contracts with Israeli universities and to divest from complicit companies, which either indirectly or directly contribute to Israeli war crimes. We had support from the student network, and I don’t think it would have happened without Apartheid Off Campus to be honest, because we’re surrounded by so many supportive people.

Alex: We’ve seen things like the IHRA definition, which Kvitka mentioned, but we’ve also seen this general exclusion of Palestinians from the mainstream debate, from mainstream media, and from really, I would say, right the way across the British political scene, apart from very minor issues. Generally speaking, in the mainstream British media discussion, people speak about Palestine and about Palestinians, but Palestinians themselves are rarely ever asked to speak or allowed to speak with their own voice. This has allowed people to think that Palestine is not important, but you also see Palestinians being overlooked in progressive spaces or they’re kind of pushed to the side and people will speak for them without speaking to them. You see Palestinians get shut out.

You even see it in this discussion around decolonization, there is an attempt to drive a wedge between support for Palestine and support for other really important issues. I think that’s why this group is really crucial because it’s not only that we keep campaigning and we mobilize students, but also it’s that we kind of force people to listen, who don’t want to listen, and they have to react. They’re forced to reckon with Palestinian students. There’s a lot of similarities with the US there I’m sure.

Sayf Abdeen: I would very tentatively say it is not as bad a situation as the US, but there are many things that stand in our way. For example, at our Palestinian society at University College London, we aren’t allowed to endorse or accept BDS. So, we have to use a loophole to tell people about it. We have to frame it as, “Oh, we’re just telling you about the various movements within this issue.” But any open acceptance of it, endorsing it is not allowed and that applies to almost every student-affiliated society that is part of any university student union because UK universities are publicly owned generally. That means we are under many restrictions, almost even directly from the government.

Something else that demonstrates what we’re going up against is that the Friends of Israel society actually gets funding and sponsorships from the Israeli embassy in London, meaning they have access to many more resources and a much more influential network. They have more money than pretty much any grassroots Palestinian movement does. So, this does make it more difficult to be a pro-Palestinian advocate.

Yara Derbas: One of our goals is to activate international solidarity. It would be an amazing thing to connect with similar groups in the United States. We are also very intersectional because we believe in liberation for all. At the very beginning of our launch, we had students from Italian universities who were saying that they were inspired by what we’ve done and they wanted us to help them end this complicity in Italian universities. That was amazing because we hadn’t even started our work yet.

But I feel like even looking at US groups like ours, which I don’t know personally and haven’t reached out to yet, like Within Our Lifetime and Palestinian Youth Movement…what I see from them on social media is very powerful and I feel like that’s something that I can relate to as a Palestinian student activist. I feel like international solidarity is always going to be bigger than any target that comes our way because we will always be targeted for standing up for what we believe in. That’s always going to happen, but that’s why we feel that networks like these are so powerful.

Huda Ammori: We know that overall we have the support of public opinion, especially among younger people and students, once they understand the principles of anti-racism and what’s happening in Israel and the apartheid regime, it’s very, very clear to students that it’s wrong for the university to be investing in it. It actually brings it home for a lot of students when they realize it is not an issue that is just happening far away, their presence at the university, and their funding of the university for their tuition fees is going towards these crimes and colonialism today.

We very much work as a grassroots movement from the bottom up. The tactics we’ve seen from the Israeli lobby are always from the top down. And our hope is that within this network, when we’re building a mass movement across campuses to really fight for Apartheid Off Campus from different societies, from different types of people who just have a common goal of ending institutionalized racism, that will win overall in terms of ending university complicity. That’s what’s going to be the counterforce for us to defeat the Israeli lobby when they’re trying to suppress activists campaigning for Palestinian human rights on campus.

We’re seeing a slow shift on Palestine in the United States. Israel has always been perceived as a third-rail issue in our political system, but in the last few years we’ve seen the election of Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, there’s Betty McCollum’s historic bill, Senator Bernie Sanders brought up conditioning aid to Israel on the campaign trail, etc. So, we’ve seen some of this stuff permeate our political system a little.

Sanders obviously doesn’t have the same kind of anti-imperial background that someone like Jeremy Corbyn does, but you’ve also had to deal with the fallout from the antisemitism allegations against the Labour Party, an issue that we’ve covered quite a bit at our site. I am wondering how you see the state of British politics, as it relates to Palestine and how you view your relationship with politicians as activists.

Huda Ammori: As you mentioned, there was a unique window of opportunity when someone like Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the Labour Party and actually for the first time we had the arms embargo between the UK and Israel be on an official manifesto, it was on the Labour Party’s manifesto in the last general election, which was a massive step forward for activists campaigning for votes. I think there was a lot of hope in that time and we’ve obviously seen that has not come to fruition. We’re in a different situation now with Keir Starmer. I think the frustration and disappointment in what’s happened with the Labour Party and politics, in general, is what’s also urging movements like ours to form because no longer do we feel like actually this is going to be sold through party politics. We have to cause a groundswell and build a movement that will end up putting pressure on these politicians as this will be, as this will become the popular opinion to take, support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. I feel like after seeing what happened to Jeremy Corbyn, what’s happened to the Labour Party, that our best hope now is focusing on the ground and building a movement among the people to build that groundswell.

Yara Derbas: It was actually student groups who were fighting for Palestine, which drove Labour’s policy at the beginning. When Jeremy Corbyn lost in the general election in December, I feel like many people would agree with me when I say, as a student activist in the UK, I lost a lot of faith in the government. Obviously, I cannot relate to a conservative government that doesn’t put faith in me or the interests of my people or the interests of many people. The policies just do not favor the general public, they favor a small handful of people. I think that that’s why we need to be working bottom-up because we know that top-down will just not work anymore. That’s not where we would place most of our efforts now because we know that the government doesn’t care what we have to say and they don’t have our interests at heart.

The government right now is not suited for someone like Jeremy Corbyn and what he was saying. That’s why I feel like it’s the students that have the power and people often underestimate that. But that’s why we need to mobilize so many people, it’s strength in numbers essentially. We have the power and we have to show people that because the government doesn’t have our backs.

Kvitka Perehinets: I think what’s also helping us quite a bit in feeling confident about what we’re doing is the communication we’ve had with other movements. For example, I’ve had conversations with the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. They’ve recalled their own situations where it had become very clear that the Zionist lobby is very much alive and well within British politics. It’s quite invisible in a lot of instances, but it’s present in places where you wouldn’t expect it to be. So I think right now, just from observing, but also learning from other groups that have sort of attempted to cooperate and partner up on a governmental level and realizing that that was not going to take us anywhere. I think it’s very important for students, especially those who feel very discouraged about interacting with British politicians since the election, it’s very important for us to just realize that the only people we can rely on are ourselves and other like-minded people like us. But yes, I think it’s very important to learn from other people who have tried different methods before us and see how we can develop on that.

Alex: Something that I think is very similar in the US and the UK is the language used in regards to this whole situation. The political elite is completely out of sync with most of the people involved in campaigning for Palestinian rights and liberation, but also even, I think, with people’s general attitudes. We have seen, over the years, people’s attitudes towards Israel have shifted, but what you see is that there’s a real dearth of that among the political class. If you take, for example, the work of Ben White and others who have written about this, you see how in the UK right now, it’s acceptable for a politician to stand up and say that they are against Israel’s settlement policy, even David Cameron did that when he was Prime Minister. But to fully endorse the BDS movement or even call for sanctions against Israel without any kind of equivocation, that will still get a lot of people coming out against you, even people in the mainstream of the political parties.

Recently [ British Labour politician] Lisa Nandy said that Britain should consider banning settlement imports into Britain and that did provoke a lot of fury from many pro-Israel groups in the country. But at the same time, I think that was within the bounds of being acceptable. The question of whether or not they could actually deliver on that, that would obviously be very difficult to do. Maybe that’s a sign of how things are shifting, but at the same time Lisa Nandy will never stand up and say that she supports the BDS movement.

There’s a real disconnect there and our success will be judged by how much we’re able to change the conversation, how we’re able to change the way that people talk about this. How people talk about things like the BDS movement, if we can make that more acceptable then we might shift some opinion. But that disconnect with language, I think, is a pretty key divide in the UK political scene. I’m sure it’s the same in the US.

Yara Derbas: Yes, exactly, and we’re just trying to shift the narrative and change the language because obviously it’s been used against us and we want to set certain the story on our terms. Everything we do, the framework is liberation and I think that we’re just trying to normalize BDS and have everyone talking about BDS because it is a normal thing to boycott. It is a normal thing to ask a racist, settler-colonial state to stop repressing people and stop being an apartheid regime, and to get international solidarity to put nonviolent pressure on them to divest and get other countries to sanction them. This is a normal thing. Boycotting is a normal thing and we’re made out to be the enemy. We’re doing nothing wrong and I think that’s something that we need to stress. That’s a goal because we don’t want people to be afraid. We want to normalize these conversations.

It’s different when you see academics or scholars talk about it, but if you see someone your own age and they’re up with the microphone or they’re up with the megaphone at a protest or they’re making a speech about the university’s complicity, you think “That could be me. I could be talking about that. Yeah, that’s right, my tuition fees are funding this occupation!” You’re seeing someone just like you talking about it.

So, we want to set the language and we want to change the narrative. I think it’s actually something we’re doing already.

I wanted to get in the weeds a little and talk about the mechanics of the activism. This group emerged amid a global pandemic and this has been a very challenging time for a lot of activists. Obviously, it’s difficult for some groups to raise money as a result of the economic impacts, it might be harder to organize people in person. I am wondering if you can just reflect on creating this organization in the time of COVID-19 and how you’ve adapted to that dimension.

Yara Derbas: As difficult as this time has been, I think in a crazy way, we have worked in such a great way, despite the pandemic. I know that sounds so strange to say, but it really has. We’ve really bloomed in this time, not just because of the pandemic but also because we’re on summer holiday, so people have more free time to attend meetings. We have so many meetings and a lot of time to organize. We’ve got to know each other in such a short space of time that we’ve become friends with each other, which is crazy because a lot of these people we didn’t know two months ago. During the pandemic, we’ve had the space to think more, to plan more, it’s not rushed. We’ve been able to take it at our own pace and plan for the future. We get to envision what happens when people get back on campus. We haven’t even got back to university yet and we’ve already got over 300 students! I feel like we’ve been able to do quite a lot online, which is very surprising to me, because when I first joined at the beginning of the launch, I thought, “How are we going to do any of this work without actually meeting in person?”

But we have. We’ve done online actions where we’ve called on students to take a picture of themselves with a banner or a poster in solidarity with Apartheid Off Campus or in solidarity with other student groups. We’ve done it for the tal3at protests for the womxn political prisoners who were arrested in Haifa and Jerusalem a few weeks ago. We’ve done so many online actions. We’ve already had two webinars. One of them was with Lowkey, who is a rapper and activist, and with Malia Bouattia [who is first female Black British and Muslim leader of the National Union of Students]. We did a webinar in collaboration with a Kashmiri TV channel called Jammu TV, bringing together student activists from different struggles. We’ve been able to produce so much social media content, get people excited, contact people to get them involved, filling out the forms to get them involved. We’ve done so much in such a short space of time, which makes me feel so hopeful about the future of Apartheid Off Campus, because we’re already making such amazing developments and we’ve barely started.

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