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Special Report: The fraught future of BDS on campus

*Content Warning: Violence, War

Last month, a motion to align Edinburgh University Student’s Association (EUSA) with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of the State of Israel (BDS) international campaign was passed by the democratic body, and since then the student community has seen emotional and contentious debates take place.

Students across campus support or oppose BDS for a number of reasons, many of them personal, and for these reasons the BDS discussion has only become more controversial as time goes on.

Following are some of the most pressing questions which surround the fraught future of BDS on our campus.

 

Can the University Financially Support BDS?

One of the major arguments made against the alignment of Edinburgh University Student’s Association (EUSA) with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of the State of Israel (BDS) international campaign was that it is not financially feasible for the University to dedicate itself economically to the goals of BDS.

BDS’ movement to peacefully protest the state of Israel relies on their three essential economic goals: to boycott goods produced in Israel and the surrounding areas of Palestine which they currently occupy (mainly the West Bank), to divest from companies which source labour, and resources and/or produce products from inside Israel and their occupied territories, and to impose sanctions on the local and federal governing bodies of the Israeli state.

boycotts divisive etc. BS quoteAccording to EUSA and University officials, enacting these central tenants of BDS would be a large financial ask of the University and EUSA’s finances. However before taking on BDS’s economic provisions can be achieved, whether or not the University will take on the task at all must first be decided.

According to EUSA regulations, after a motion is passed in Student Council it must also be passed by the Trustee Board if the motion in question deals with the legal, financial, or reputational health of the University as an organisation.

Jonny Ross-Tatam, EUSA President and Chair of the Trustee Board told The Student that “the implications of all policy passed at March Student Council will be assessed and considered over the coming weeks,” however predictions have already been made about the extent to which EUSA and the university can commit to BDS financially.

Speaking to The Student on this topic, Imogen Wilson, EUSA Vice President of Academic Affairs (VPAA), and Trustee Board Member, said that it would be a huge economic ask to commit to BDS, and that it may not be passed by the Trustee Board, even after being passed by Student Council.

“There would be many economic repercussions for the Student Union, because it would force us to do a full review of all the products which we sell, and there’s no staff member in EUSA currently who has the job of doing that, and I think it is even more dangerous to implement a policy and then not do it in a proper way and the way that its intended.”

Disagreement with those who question BDS’s financial feasibility has been voiced by those who support the motion, with members of student council on the night of the vote querying why EUSA would be cautious of committing economically to BDS when they have previously committed fully to other divestment campaigns, such as that run by the group People and Planet, who call for the University to divest from fossil fuels and armament companies.

Wilson voiced her opinion on this point as well, telling The Student: “This policy is different from other types of divestment which EUSA has backed, because although the point of BDS is not to marginalise Jewish students, it doesn’t change the fact that that is what is happening on other campuses.”

 

Does BDS Negatively Politicise EUSA?

Along with the question of financial feasibility, questions have been raised about the way in which adopting a pro-BDS stance will affect the political reputation of EUSA, and whether EUSA as an organisation should be making political decisions which are seen as contentious or divisive among the students they represent.

EUSA recently come under fire for “being too politicised,” during the election season for next year’s representatives.

Many students voiced their opinions that EUSA should focus on doing things that all students want and need, not taking sides on political arguments which exist outside of campus.

While most candidates agreed that some political stances needed to be taken for the good of the community, the issue of the BDS motion has rekindled the argument over whether EUSA should adopt a stance on highly politicised issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. not peace etc. PW quote

Theo Robertson-Bonds, a fourth-year politics student and vice-chair of the Israel Engagement Society, a group established this year and actively opposed to BDS, ran for the post of EUSA President in the 2016 election cycle, and was adamant in his campaign that EUSA needed to act as a political body for the good of the student community.

However Robertson-Bonds has since expressed his view that while EUSA should be political, BDS is not the type of politics EUSA should take part in.

Speaking to The Student on this topic, Robertson-Bonds said: “It’s not that I don’t want to politicise EUSA, I think EUSA should have politics, but BDS is the wrong type of politics, because it seeks to divide students.

“We can have a dialogue between different students groups, that’s fine. If a BDS group wants to campaign for Palestinian rights that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be institutionalised in our student union, which is supposed to represent everyone.”

Imogen Wilson, EUSA VPAA, seconded this sentiment, saying that BDS specifically should not be adopted by EUSA because of EUSA’s established aim to fight for the liberation of all groups equally. “It is against our liberation principles to choose which group we get support in liberation, we should never do that at the expense of another group,” Wilson told The Student.

However those who support the motion have expressed frustration at naysayers who take this line of argument. Lily Bryant, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, told The Student: “If EUSA cares so much about liberation, then it is in their best interest and in the interest of the entire student body to support a campaign such as BDS for the sake of the Palestinian people.

“BDS seeks to peacefully protest the fact that Palestinians are being stripped of not just their rights and cultural identity, but their very existence and that of their families by the Israeli state and the ethos of violence which they perpetuate.

“The politics of Israel and its connection to the Jewish people should be treated as completely mutually exclusive, and BDS as a campaign backs this ethos strongly.”

 

Does BDS Create a Religious or Cultural Rift on Campus?

Possibly the most contentious aspect of EUSA’s alignment with the BDS campaign is that it presents a strong possibility of dividing students across the University of Edinburgh campus upon the basis of religious and cultural belief and identity.

marginalising groups etc. TRB quoteWhen the motion was presented in Student Council on the night of March 31st worries were already being voiced by those who feared the rift which would be caused within the University community. But if emotions seemed to run high on the night of the vote, they would be prove even more explosive in the weeks following.

Those who support the motion contend that it is a religious, cultural and even political issue. BDS as a campaign does not support any anti-Semitic sentiment, supporters point out, and operates on a platform of liberation for those who have experienced human rights infractions on behalf of the Israeli state.

BDS activists openly oppose the settlements in the West Bank on the basis that the UN has deemed them to be illegal occupied, but they say they have never issued any statements on opposing the state of Israel itself as a Jewish homeland. Therefore, motion supporters argue, no anti-Semitic sentiment should be attached to or interpreted from a EUSA/BDS alignment.

Mohammed Ismaili, representative of the Edinburgh chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) campus group, and an international student from Palestine, told The Student: “This motion is all about human rights and at its core it is about people. People at this university and in western society don’t seem to understand that this is more than just a conflict of papers, this is a conflict of human lives being lost.”human rights etc. MI quote

Yet despite the intention, a great deal of criticism of the Student Council’s vote has centred around the idea that aligning EUSA with BDS actively marginalises the University’s Jewish community.

Rabbi Pinny Weinman, community leader of the Chabad Lubavitch organisation in Edinburgh, expressed his belief that the passing of the motion to support BDS was an active attack on the Jewish faith, and those who practice it in Edinburgh.

Weinman told The Student: “I was saddened and disturbed at the news of the pro-BDS motion passing in the Student Council. It is imperative that Jewish students on campus feel comfortable and unashamed to express pride in their Jewish identity and their connection to the Holy Land. I believe this motion was brought forward by a group which seeks not peace, but rather to delegitimise Israel and question its right to exist.”

Brianna Sommers, President of the University’s Jewish Society (JSoc), echoed this sentiment, saying on the night of the vote: “I, and the students that I represent, have an inextricable connection to the State of Israel. That connection, positive or negative, is a connection that cannot be ignored.

“On each campus that BDS has reared its ugly face it is Jewish students who have had to deal with the backlash. Boycotts by their very nature are hurtful and divisive, and this motion serves to cause divisions on campus. On an issue that many Jewish students care significantly about, this motion excludes them.

“The current climate that Jewish students have to face on campus doesn’t surprise me. It is undeniable that there has been a rise in anti-Semitism on UK campuses. Although the proposers of this motion may have the best intentions, BDS creates an atmosphere that can foster anti-Semitism, because it is always Jewish students who are left to face the backlash.”

However, acknowledging the assertions that BDS could become a force of marginalisation, Ismaili strongly expressed his views that BDS does not seek to harm the Israeli state, or cause marginalisation within the communities who adopt its policies; it rather seeks to gain inalienable civil rights for those who have suffered as a result of the Israeli state occupying their homeland.

“Diplomacy has not worked, war has not worked, and people are still being slaughtered,” he told The Student. “For this to be an even playing field for both Palestinians and Israelis, a forum needs to be created where these two groups can meet and discuss their differences. In order for this to happen, you need to really effect Israel economically for them to be willing to talk.”

 

What Personal Connections do Edinburgh Students Have with BDS?

The controversy that surrounds BDS speaks to the intensely personal connection many students have with the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The University of Edinburgh is host to international students from both Israel and Palestine, as well as surrounding areas such as Jordan and Lebanon, nations which have been directly affected by the conflict in the past and at present.

diplomacy etc. MI quoteMohammed Ismaili has experienced the way boycotting can be successful first-hand in his hometown of East Jerusalem, and he says this experience has helped aid his adamant support of the BDS campaign.
“I for one support a one state solution, and I don’t mind saying that,” Ismaili told The Student. “In order for this to happen, you need to really harm Israel economically—you need to affect Israel economically for them to be willing to talk.”

Ismaili shared an experience with The Student that took place in the summer of 2014 during the violence which broke out in Gaza, saying: “Everyone in the villages refrained from buying any Israeli goods being sold in their area.

“People travelled all the way to the West Bank to get goods wherever they could find them that didn’t come from Israeli stores or factories.

“People did whatever they could, and this was during the Eid which is a holiday like any other; people exchange gifts, get new clothes, get things for their families, but everyone refrained and lived on barely anything in order to support their brethren across the borders.

“Real change was actually effected: the roads to Bethlehem were opened for one of the first time since the 60’s. My uncle and cousin were able to come into Jerusalem for the first time in their lives. My uncle had tried to get in around 20 years ago, but he was stopped and imprisoned. I have cousins who ask me what an ocean looks like, what moving water looks like, because they don’t even understand the concept, because they are trapped in a hole. heartbreaking etc. SA quote

“This is how boycotting works: this is how it lead to freedom of movement for the first time for so many people, including my own family members.”

Other international students studying in Edinburgh have had similar experiences. Sharine Abdullah carries an Israeli passport, but identifies herself ethnically as Palestinian. Abdullah was born in a town called Taibe, which became part of Israel as of the 1948 border lines, however she has lived most of her life in Jerusalem.

Growing up as an Israeli citizen, Abdullah spoke of her original qualms about supporting BDS. “It was quite challenging to decide whether I’d ever actively support BDS,” Abdullah told The Student.

However she expressed how she came about to have a change of heart. “As I grew older and realised that every Israeli friend of mine had enrolled in the army after high school or later on,” she said, “realised how the Israeli government has divided the Palestinian people into groups and territories who no longer relate to each other due to the differences in their unjustly distributed labels, and realised that, in order to help end the illegal occupation of Palestine, I had to actively support BDS.”

She went on to discuss the effect that protests such as BDS have had in her home, telling The Student, “Concerning protests back home, it’s especially frightening now with all the shootings and attacks on both sides, but I’ve accepted the fact that I, with what I believe and the nationality I identify with, can be killed at any point when I’m back home and it’ll be nothing more than a mere drop added on to the ocean of Palestinian casualties.

“It is heart breaking to hear that someone was jailed or killed every single day, but there is a reason behind all these peoples’ sacrifices and I believe BDS can bring to light what happened to these people and hold Israel accountable for their crimes.”

Eli Roshef, a Lebanese international student, shared his experience with violence at the hands of Israeli forces, telling The Student: “I have lost family members at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and for no other reason than they were Muslim.

“As Lebanese citizens living in Beirut, we are surrounded by Palestinian refugees and there is a strong pro-Palestinian sentiment among our people. However despite the fact that we do not take part in direct conflict with Israel, IDF air strikes and snipers are commonplace.”

 

Mohammed Ismaili, Lily Bryant, Sharine Abdullah and Eli Roshef are pseudonyms used to protect individuals’ identities at their request.

 

Image credit: KNLphotos2010

 

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