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SOAS votes to boycott Israel

Jonny Morrison, BA Chinese (Modern and Classical)

73% back call for Israeli universities boycott in ‘historic’ vote

Students and staff have called on SOAS to break its institutional links with Israeli universities in a referendum organised by the Students’ Union.

73% voted ‘yes’ in the ballot, which asked “Should SOAS join the BDS call for an academic boycott of Israeli universities?”. The ‘yes’ campaign said the result was “a victory first and foremost for the Palestinian students and academics who continue to struggle for the right to education under Israeli occupation and apartheid on a daily basis.”

The joint statement from SOAS Palestine Society and the ‘yes’ campaign called on the “SOAS administration to respect the democratic choice of the SOAS community by implementing the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

They added, “The results usher in a historic precedent for SOAS, universities throughout the United Kingdom, and universities in the Western Hemisphere which for too long have interacted unquestioningly with these institutions.”

In advance of the vote, SOAS indicated its opposition to the boycott. The School said, “SOAS is committed to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. This can only be conducted effectively in an atmosphere of open enquiry, mutual tolerance and intellectual freedom.”

“We do everything we can to preserve our neutrality, to ensure that we do not compromise by association our researchers or anyone else in our worldwide community.”

“Furthermore the School makes every effort to avoid corporate alignment with political and social campaigns, so that we can continue to facilitate the critical analysis and original thinking that are hallmarks of our research and teaching.”

The results, announced Friday by returning officer Alex Fulton, showed that a total of 2,056 votes were cast in the week-long referendum. The breakdown revealed that all three voter groups – students, directly-employed staff and outsourced staff including cleaners – all supported the boycott call. Three quarters of students voted ‘yes’ compared to 60% of internal staff, but the biggest ‘yes’ vote came from cleaners and other outsourced workers, with 91% voting in favour of the boycott.

The referendum campaign provoked intense debate on campus in the weeks preceding the vote including a tense Union General Meeting which saw passionate and emotional speeches from both sides of the argument.

Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle last week, ‘no’ campaign representative Moselle Paz Sollis said, “We are too scared to go anywhere so we walk in a group to the station. People come up to me and say I heard you hate Palestinians.”

With SOAS being the first UK Students’ Union to back an academic boycott call, the vote has attracted wider attention. The National Union of Students’ Black Students’ Campaign released a statement in support of a ‘yes’ vote; saying “Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the occupation and oppression of Palestinians…The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with which SOAS currently has institutional links, is built on stolen Palestinian land and thus contributes to Israel’s expansionist settler project.”

Meanwhile, the Union of Jewish Students, which has campaigned against BDS, are said to have called the referendum “biased” and their Campaigns Director Maggie Suissa tweeted shortly before the SOAS vote closed to say “Well done to all who campaigned and spoke against #BDS policies on their campuses – successfully or not, no one shied away from the fight.”

The Students’ Union position in the vote came under scrutiny given the pre-existing policy of supporting a more general call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel since 2005. In a statement from the three Co-presidents, they said that the Union’s role was to “ensure it [the referendum] is open and fair and to promote it as much as we can in order to get as many members of the SOAS community to vote”.

Claims printed in the Jewish Chronicle that a union officer had been dismissed in relation to the vote appear to be inaccurate, but an LGBTQIA+ Society Committee member did resign after an all-member society meeting voted to support the ‘yes’ campaign.

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