This article was first published at the Electronic Intifada.
Chants echoed loudly outside the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, last Thursday. Hundreds had gathered to protest an event featuring the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, in a meeting organized by the SOAS Jewish and United Nations societies.
Protestors could be heard inside the meeting room where Regev was speaking. “They are chanting, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’” Regev said during his presentation, decrying the protestors as “supporters of a hardline, maximalist Palestinian position.”
Regev’s rhetoric was hardly surprising.
Israel and its supporters have been waging a war on campuses to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinian freedom. The global campaign is inspired by the international mobilization against apartheid in South Africa.
SOAS has been a major target as the “first UK campus to back anti-Israel boycott,” according to The Times of Israel.
In February 2015, 73 percent of SOAS students backed an academic boycott of Israel in a school-wide referendum. SOAS is the first campus visited by Regev since he became Israel’s envoy to the UK last year.
In an op-ed in The Times of Israel a day after his talk at the London university, Regev stated he had gone there to put forward Israel’s case, arguing that there was a tendency for academics at the school “to rewrite history and portray Israel as a colonial imposition on the region’s indigenous peoples.”
Regev charged that Israel had been victimized at SOAS – “no Israeli government voice had been heard at SOAS,” an “absence” that “conforms to a troubling trend.” He brandished the anti-Semitism card, condemning SOAS for hosting speakers “notorious for their vociferous hatred of Jewish people.”
The defensive tone of the op-ed, slamming those “falsely portraying the Jews as infiltrators and the Jewish state as imperialist,” suggests Israel feels threatened by the SOAS community and the scholarship its faculty and students put out countering the state’s narrative.
Regev rose to international prominence as an Israeli government spokesperson justifying brutal violence against Palestinian civilians during Israel’s periodic “mowing-the-grass” massacres in Gaza.
Academics were at the forefront of opposition to Regev’s appearance at SOAS. Holding the meeting seemed like “a deliberate provocation,” professor Jonathan Rosenhead argued in an open letter to school director Valerie Amos that was signed by more than 150 academics from SOAS and other UK universities.
“Liaising with the Israeli embassy on such an event, despite the continuation of Israeli policies to deport and ban entry of SOAS staff and students because of their views on Israel, including legally penalizing support for BDS,” the academics state, “is an affront to the SOAS community.”
Thirty-two student societies at SOAS protested the university’s decision to allow what they described as an “official exercise in state propaganda” to go ahead. They called on all students to participate in an “Apartheid Off Campus” day to protest the visit.
A recent UN report found Israel guilty of having “established an apartheid regime” and practicing “demographic engineering, in order to establish and maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority in Israel.”
“This is a political event not an academic presentation,” student signatories asserted, challenging SOAS’s proposition that an event format that allowed the Israeli envoy’s views to go unchallenged constituted a free debate.
In a separate letter, Palestinian students raised the “very real risk” that attending and voicing criticism at the meeting would put them at risk of being interrogated, detained, or deported and banned by Israeli border agents, especially in light of the country’s new law denying entry to supporters of the boycott movement.
That law was recently used against Kamel Hawwash, an engineering professor at the University of Birmingham.
Senior SOAS academic Adam Hanieh, who like Hawwash is of Palestinian origin, was also recently detained upon arrival to Tel Aviv and banned from entering Israel for 10 years.
“The SOAS management would turn our campus into an extension of Israel’s military occupation by allowing students to be monitored and have their rights trampled on,” Palestinian students warned in their letter.
The meeting, protesters argued, “constitutes a violation rather than a defense of academic freedom and of freedom of speech.”
Students at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, protested on Thursday over an unannounced meeting between their institution’s director and Mark Regev, the new Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Previously the Israeli prime minister’s spokesperson, Regev is a familiar face on television screens where he has often defended military attacks on Palestinians.
He started his new role as ambassador in London on Monday.
On Wednesday, Regev posted on Twitter a photo of himself posing with SOAS director Valerie Amos, after they had had what he termed a “good meeting.”
Dozens of students gathered outside SOAS Thursday chanting: “BDS go! Amos and Regev no!”
Students also protested outside Amos’ office, calling for a free Palestine.
A Facebook page set up by protest organizers stated that “by accepting the ambassador’s visit, Valerie Amos and SOAS as an institution are complicit in … ongoing colonialism.”
A coalition of student societies issued a statement condemning the meeting, saying they considered it “a flagrant violation of the principles of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which the SOAS Students’ Union overwhelmingly voted to support in the largest student referendum ever held at SOAS last year.”
The groups demanded an explanation, and for Amos “to apologize for meeting with Mark Regev … and to accept our invitation to work together on applying the result of the democratic BDS referendum to the university.”
In an emailed response to the student union, Amos said: “I met the Israeli ambassador to follow up on a letter I had sent him about the detention and treatment of a SOAS research student at Ben Gurion airport.” She added that she saw this “as an important part of my responsibility as director.”
But Zeid Shuaib, a Palestinian student at SOAS told The Electronic Intifada that “this visit has a political message. This is an attempt to undermine BDS, and specifically the SOAS community’s relentless support for BDS.”
An Israeli journalist on a visit to the London embassy recently reported on the “war room”-style map which details “the main campuses, the deployment of pro-Israel activists and the location of the ‘enemy forces.’”
It seems likely SOAS students are considered among such “enemy forces.”
An overwhelming 73 percent voted in favor.
But the coalition of student groups protesting the Regev meeting charged the administration with disregarding the result.
“The student societies that supported the BDS referendum have made effort after effort to engage management to ensure that the governance of the university is kept democratic and have only been met with intimidation and aggression,” the groups said.
While Regev was the Israeli prime minister’s chief spokesperson, he relentlessly justified Israel’s wars to the world’s media, including in the UK.
Whether it was the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, or its repeated “mowing the lawn” massacres in Gaza, Regev was there to excuse Israel’s killing of civilians.
SOAS student Roba Salibi said, “we will continue to mobilize and put pressure on the management to turn our BDS referendum result into actions, and ensure that such an offensive and outrageous act does not happen again.”
This video, which this blog post aims to publicize as much as possible, has been produced as a part of a campaign to encourage SOAS (London’s School of Oriental and African Studies) to break its ties with Israeli academic institutions.
Next week, 23-27 February, there will be a school-wide referendum in which students, academics and other staff members will vote on whether to boycott Israeli academic institutions and put pressure on SOAS to follow the BDS guidelines.
For weeks we have been campaigning for a yes vote, organizing events, distributing flyers and posters to raise awareness about the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in the ongoing oppression and human rights violations of the Palestinian people.
In this video we as the student and academic body of the BDS campaign aim to expose SOAS’s collaboration with Israeli academic institutions, such as Hebrew University, which are deeply tied to the Israeli military. We should not, as students and academics, let SOAS maintain these links in our name.
My journey to SOAS
In September, I made it to SOAS after a long and hard journey that really exhausted me. However, every day I feel happier that I was so determined to make my dream of becoming a student in SOAS come true.
Shortly after my graduation from Al-Azhar University, Gaza, with a degree in English literature, I had to start applying for scholarships to fund my postgraduate studies abroad, a dream that I always sought to realize. Fortunately, I won two scholarships: one to Britain and another to Turkey. It sounds like I had the luxury to just pick any country in which to pursue my studies. However, it was the Rafah crossing that chose for me to seek Turkey as a bridge, a secure exit onto my final destination of England were I could finally join SOAS.
On 1 October 2013, I made it to Turkey after almost a month worth of daily attempt to cross the gate of the Rafah border crossing. Rafah crossing was, and continues to be, a gate of humiliation and dehumanization, a gate that stands as an obstacle for many people in reaching out for their ambitions, a gate that puts a population of 1.8 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip under a slow-death sentence.
A bird being set free is the feeling I had when I finally crossed the border. Nevertheless, this sense of freedom was always hijacked and violated any time I was obliged to show my Palestinian Authority passport — a common story for millions of Palestinians!
I lived in Istanbul for a period of ten months. I struggled with a sense of fragmentation that I never had before. I had been shattered between two places, physically being in Turkey but mentally and emotionally being in Palestine. This feeling reached the highest point when on 8 July 2014, the Israeli occupation forces launched one of their most barbaric and genocidal wars against the Gaza Strip.
This 51-day attack was the first I saw from outside, an experience that I found more devastating than the many wars I witnessed while being around family, when we shock as we heard missiles landing around us day and night, threatening everyone’s lives. I was locked in my safe zone in Istanbul while suffering a psychological war that nearly drove me insane.
I had to deal with a serious challenge to keep my sanity while enduring an exhausting fear that I could lose any person dear to me any moment. This fear haunted me more and more, especially after I learned about the murder of my uncle from mum’s side, Mohammed Louz, and two neighbors with whom I grew up in the same house, Ahmad and Hazem Murad.
Vote “Yes” on BDS
Reflecting on that period is quite difficult to put in words. Every experience endured at the hands of the Zionist state of Israel feeds into my anger. My experiences empower my determination to move on and continue fighting the bubble of impunity that Israel is protected by, given a green light from the “international community.”
On 8 September 2014, twelve days after the announcement of the ceasefire, I officially became a masters student at SOAS, studying Media and the Middle East. I was a bit scared starting this new chapter of my life in which everything was new. But nothing could be more healing, inspiring or rewarding to me.
Every day lived here at SOAS makes me feel more like being at home. The secret behind this feeling has been the amazing and inspiring people I have met, especially the Palestine Society which embraced me, and I equally embraced. What brought us together was a shared conviction in the Palestinian people’s just cause, a shared commitment to the fight for freedom, justice and equality.
We, as students and academics who believe that academia is not neutral, and is actually political, believe that the campus is our battlefield to fight for what is right and push for a political stand that should be sided with the oppressed and against the oppressor, a stand against racism, oppression and occupation and in favor of justice.
Boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) is a tactic that we believe is an effective way for the international community to translate their solidarity with the Palestinian people into actions that can push the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people forward. We believe that BDS is a way to end Israel’s impunity and make them realize they cannot get away with their crimes against humanity, and that any crime they commit will cost them. The way to do it is to get the Israeli community out of their comfort zone, to encourage them to critically think of their state’s inhumane, racist and brutal policies and actions and to rebel against them.
At the moment, I feel more proud than ever to be a part of this community. We are now leading a campaign that is the first of its kind, not only in the UK, but also in Euro-American campuses.
Please dedicate five minutes to watch this video. It includes many SOAS academics and students who make the case for the academic boycott in a very eloquent and powerful way. Share the powerful message behind this video so others can be inspired to move beyond solidarity onto serious actions that can make a change for the Palestinian people.
Join the battle for justice, freedom and equality!