UCLU Friends of Palestine society encountered opposition from UCL management in running one of their events for Israel Apartheid Week, an international initiative to raise awareness of Israeli settlers’ colonial practices in Palestine and the apartheid system in the region.
This fuelled the growing concern in recent weeks over universities cracking down on student activism and freedom of expression under Prevent – the government’s flagship and highly controversial anti-terrorism strategy – guidelines.
UCLU Friends of Palestine were not the only student pro-Palestine support group to face barriers to the organisation of Israel Apartheid Week; the University of Central Lancashire cancelled a speaker event that was due to host anti-Israel activists and pro-Palestine academics.
At UCL, Vice Provost Rex Knight appears to have tried to prevent an event entitled ‘Quad Under Occupation’, designed to stage the segregationist practices that ‘sow the seeds of racial tension in Israel’ in the Main Quad.
Following a complaint from the Academic Friends of Israel group stating that the event would not respect the new government-approved definition of anti-Semitism, Rex Knight announced that the event would be cancelled for not ‘go[ing] through the proper process’.
The new definition of anti-Semitism was put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in May 2016, and appears to extend the definition of anti-Semitism to criticism of the state of Israel, thus endangering the free exercise of pro-Palestinian activism.
UCLU Friends of Palestine society hosted five different events for Israel Apartheid Week, including an information stall on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement against Israel, a spoken word night, speaker events and a film screening. Its immersive ‘Quad Under Occupation’ event, however, eventually had to be postponed due to pressure from UCL management, taking place a week later.
The difficulties encountered by UCL pro-Palestinian activists in trying to run events are not isolated and seem to form part of a larger trend of universities clamping down on freedom of expression and student activism.
In the past week, UCL has sent Fossil Free UCL activists have received threats of disciplinary procedures following their peaceful occupation of the Provost Michael Arthur’s office balcony on Thursday.
In a letter to UK universities in February, the universities minister Jo Johnson reminded the academic institutions of the new government-adopted definition and specifically expressed concern about Israel Apartheid Week events on campuses.
Jo Johnson’s recommendations have been the targets of fierce criticism from academics over concerns about freedom of expression. In response to his letter and the subsequent cancellation of an Israel Apartheid Week event at the University of Central Lancashire, over 140 members of staff signed an open letter published in the Guardian denouncing the government’s policy.
This is not the only time in recent weeks that the government has been accused of bias towards Israel and of hindering student pro-Palestinian activism.
The highly controversial Prevent strategy has come under fire from many student unions across the country, and the NUS has voiced its strong opposition to the policy, starting a ‘Preventing Prevent’ campaign.
A presentation featured on the Safe Campus Communities website was recently published, providing recommendations to universities for detecting extremism. This presentation largely followed the government’s official anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent, and cited ‘vocal support for Palestine’, ‘opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza’ as well as ‘opposition to Prevent’ as potential signposts of extremist behaviour.
UCL’s crackdown on pro-Palestine activism comes after growing concern about rising anti-Semitism on campus, not least following the highly reported clashes between UCLU Friends of Palestine and UCLU Friends of Israel at an event hosting Hen Mazzig, a Humanitarian and UN Liaison Officer for the Israeli Defence Forces, last December.
Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists protested against Hen Mazzig’s visit and violence erupted, leading to the police being involved.
However Josh Nagli, the Campaigns director of the Union of Jewish Students, has declared these ‘alarmist’ declarations of growing anti-Semitism to be unfounded, saying that they ‘do not reflect the experiences of Jewish students’ whose voices he claims are not being listened to sufficiently in the ongoing debate.