OUSU council on Wednesday evening rejected an attempt to force OUSU’s NUS delegates to vote against “any motion aligning the NUS with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) at the NUS national conference”.
The motion, proposed by Ben Goldstein and seconded by Adam Dayan, was proposed due to fears that full BDS might become an official NUS policy at the National Conference in April. The motion fell, with 30 votes for, 72 votes against, and 28 abstentions. This means NUS delegates now have a free vote on BDS.
BDS is a global movement to put political and economic pressure on Israel to agree to certain pro-Palestinian demands. These demands include an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, recognition of the equal rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and giving Palestinians a right to return to their original homes. BDS ranges from arms divestment to a full academic and cultural boycott from Israel.
The proposers of the motion disagreed with the methods of the movement. The motion argued that a wholesale boycott of Israel “puts at risk any British student relationships with all Israeli organisations”. It also contested that the BDS movement “alienates moderate Israelis and strengthens the right-wing ultranationalist narrative in Israel”.
Dayan and Goldstein told Cherwell, “The mood in the room was mixed and unfortunately discussion of procedural motions obscured a substantive debate on the issues of BDS. It’s a shame that many people weren’t able to represent their JCRs because the debate was cut short.
“We trust that our NUS delegates will take into account the many objections to the odious BDS movement raised by Oxford students.”
James Elliott, one of the leaders of the opposition to the motion, was delighted with the result, commenting, “It is very clear that Oxford students have profound concern for the colonial occupation of Palestine, and it is no surprise OUSU Council rejected this rushed, hyperbolic motion.
“This was all a proxy fight about the NUS’s existing support for BDS, a policy which I proudly seconded and continue to uphold. It turns out that students don’t think Israel is an illegitimate target beyond our criticism and action. The question is what we do to extricate ourselves from that complicity.”
The OUSU motion split opinion in many common rooms. The JCRs of Magdalen and St John’s both mandated their representatives to vote for the motion at OUSU Council, whilst Wadham, University, and St Peter’s JCRs mandated their representatives to vote against it.
In other JCRs, the motion provoked extensive debate, with Balliol JCR’s meeting lasting over three hours. It eventually decided to mandate two of its representatives to vote against the motion, and one in favour. At Hertford, an open letter supporting BDS was circulated, subsequently becoming the cause of much controversy within the College.
Meanwhile, the JCRs of Queen’s, Pembroke, LMH, New, and Jesus all conducted online polls of their members to determine how their representatives should vote.
The motion itself was subject to two attempted amendments during the course of debate.
The first amendment considered was an attempt by the original proposers to clarify what the motion meant. Representatives from Somerville were mandated to seek clarification on the meaning of ‘the BDS movement’, as the motion referred to it. Some students believed that it was unclear whether the motion referred to the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), or the general principle of sanctions against Israel. Several mandated JCR representatives stated their opposition to the amendment on the basis that it was undemocratic, as it was not proposed with enough time for them to consult their respective JCRs. The amendment was defeated with 25 votes for, 78 votes against, and 25 abstentions.
The other amendment considered was one proposed by next year’s VP for Grads, Nick Cooper, which tried to mandate NUS delegates to abstain on all BDS motions, as opposed to voting against them. This motion also failed, with more than 100 people voting against it.
Second year Christ Church PPEist Jan Nedvídek, who spoke in support of the motion, was disheartened by the outcome of the vote, telling Cherwell, “I find it disappointing that OUSU failed to back the motion. OUSU and the NUS should be looking after student welfare, not passing motions on controversial geopolitical issues.
“Tonight, OUSU had a chance to say that, but decided not to. I guess it’s business as usual: the NUS pretending it’s the UN Security Council, rather than an institution representing the diverse student body in the UK.”
Barnaby Raine, one of the NUS delegates who would have been affected by the motion, commented, “I was surprised and heartened at the huge margin by which this motion was defeated – as I made clear in the debate before the vote today, I now plan on voting to boycott Israel at NUS conference.”
The Oxford Students’ Arab Cultural Society told Cherwell, “This evening’s vote at OUSU represents a success of student democracy in reflecting the views of the majority of the student body. Oxford students did not want to support a motion which attempted to rush through policy forcing NUS delegates to opposed Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. Students objected to the undemocratic manner in which the motion was brought, placed on the OUSU council agenda without time for many common rooms to meet and discuss the issue.
“It was evident in the common rooms that were able to discuss the policy that Oxford students are concerned about the situation in Palestine and the role that our university plays. The University of Oxford, through its investments and research programmes, is invested in arms companies and companies that profit from the Israeli occupation.
“The vote tonight makes it clear that Oxford University students want to be able to discuss Israeli human rights abuses in their common rooms, and that our delegates should not be forced to vote against existing NUS policy which supports divestment from companies that profit from the occupation.”
OUSU President Louis Trup told Cherwell, “I respect OUSU Council’s right to mandate NUS delegates to vote in a certain way at the NUS conference. In this instance, they chose not to. I will, however, inform Council in 1st Week of Trinity how individual delegates voted.”