There are times in the life of a political movement when it can seem that you are isolated, without support, and unable to gain the ground you so desperately seek. The international anti-apartheid movement had to break through that barrier in the 1950s and 60s, and now the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is gathering support too, including in Oxford.
On Wednesday night, I was one of a group of students who organised to defeat a motion that would seek to mandate all of our NUS delegates to vote against BDS at NUS conference. OUSU Council rejected this motion overwhelmingly, with 72 votes against 30, meaning that several delegates will be able to vote for NUS to continue its BDS policy at its national conference.
The importance of BDS in an academic environment like Oxford is huge. Our University prides itself on free thought, the pursuit of knowledge, and academic freedom. Yet these values are incompatible with Israeli apartheid. We should distance ourselves from any Israeli academic institution involved in the occupation, colonialism, and apartheid found in Palestine. For example, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a university with an international reputation for research, develops bulldozers used by the Israeli military to demolish Palestinian homes. How can one collaborate on research with such an institution and remain ‘neutral’?
The reality is that much opposition to BDS is often couched in terms of how much you support or ‘sympathise’ with the Palestinian cause, but this always reverts to fence-sitting.
There is some hypocrisy in academic collaboration, as our university has a Socially Responsible Investment Policy that excludes Israeli arms. Students occupied the Clarendon in 2009 and demanded divestment from arms companies supplying Israel, after it was revealed these investments included BAE, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, all of whom have made weapons that have been used against the Palestinian population.
Had our NUS delegates been ‘mandated’ to vote against BDS, I would have hoped they would trust their conscience and place the lives of students in Palestine above the opinions of those in Oxford. A movement is gathering strength, and a call issued in 2005 by Palestinian civil society is now echoing in the institutions of student unionism.
In situations of oppression, to stay neutral is to side with the oppressor. On Palestine, it seems Oxford is slowly moving away from the latter.