UK student leaders slammed for Israel trip
This article was first published at the Electronic Intifada.
Student union leaders in the UK and Ireland have been slammed for accepting expenses-paid propaganda trips to Israel.
Palestinian students on Tuesday condemned the trip as a “whitewash” of “Israeli crimes and decades-long oppression of our people.”
A statement signed by Palestinian student groups and unions across Historic Palestine said that “far from being ‘educational,’ these trips focus on giving a one-sided, pro-apartheid vision of our reality here in Palestine.”
The call came after Shakira Martin, a vice president of Britain’s National Union of Students, last week annouced her intention to accept the trip on Facebook, a day before her departure.
She wrote that it was “essential I listen to the voices of my membership and educate myself on particular issues such as Israel and Palestine to ensure that I make informed decisions as a leader.”
But the Palestinian students’ statement said that “participants on such trips have met with Israeli officials, military officers and even visited illegal settlements – actively normalizing their existence despite the breach of Palestinian land rights and international law, which they represent.”
A group of college students has launched a petition calling on the NUS’ executive committee to hold these officers to account.
The NUS has repeatedly voted in favor of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Martin herself voted in favor of BDS in 2015. “I’m proud to support peace and justice for Palestine,” she said in her 2015 election speech, “because everyone has the right to free education and not military occupation.”
Malaka Mohammed, a Palestinian activist and PhD student in the UK, commented on Martin’s Facebook page that she wondered “how someone would get educated when they’re going on a sponsored-trip representing one side of the conflict.”
“Would they get you to see Palestinian families who lost their loved ones in occupied territories?” Mohammed asked. “Or those detained for no charge or trial? Or maybe families of over 400 children in Israeli jails? Or those whose lands are confiscated? Or maybe my family in Gaza who lost many of their neighbors and friends? The answer is unfortunately no … You will get educated for sure but on what they want you to see and learn.”
Martin’s trip was organized by the Union of Jewish Students, a staunchly pro-Israel organization which receives funding from the Israeli embassy in London, as revealed by a recent undercover documentary.
Al Jazeera’s film The Lobby also showed that Richard Brooks, another NUS vice president, had been plotting with pro-Israel activists to overthrow elected NUS president Malia Bouattia, a supporter of Palestinian rights.
The film led to the resignations of Shai Masot, a senior political officer at the Israeli embassy, and Maria Strizzolo, a civil servant who plotted the downfall of a senior UK government minister along with Masot.
Investigations have been launched into Strizzolo and Brooks.
Palestine societies in the UK last week wrote a letter to Martin urging her to uphold her previously stated position on BDS. “You risk being part of Israel’s attempt to ‘rebrand’ and whitewash its apartheid system,” they wrote.
The letter says that “standing with Palestine means more than holding flags and verbal solidarity – not only did you fail to live up to your words, but you are using your power and agency to normalize apartheid.”
The trip Martin accepted appears to be part of a wider wave of such pro-Israel propaganda visits of student leaders this month.
Angela Alexander, women’s officer in NUS Scotland, also disclosed in a Facebook post that she joined the same UJS trip.
And Fergal McFerran, president of the NUS Union of Students in Ireland, unintentionally revealed his presence in an illegal settlement in Israeli-occupied Syria last week.
A posting to his Facebook page on an unrelated subject revealed a location of Kidmat Tzvi, an Israeli colony in the occupied Golan Heights.
McFerran later deleted the post and reposted it without a location specified.
So far, McFerran has failed to publicly disclose his trip, and it hasn’t been made clear whether he was on the same UJS delegation.
A third NUS vice president, Shelly Asquith, last week disclosed that she declined an “all-expenses-paid trip to Israel on account of my role” in NUS. The offer was made by StandWithUS, a strongly pro-Israel group which has received Israeli government funding.
“I would not take up such a trip because NUS’s policy is to support the BDS movement,” Asquith posted on Facebook. “These trips are part of a public relations exercise to encourage people to view Israel in a favorable way in the context of the ‘conflict.’ They are open about that purpose.”