Activism for Palestinian freedom in English universities

My great grandparents were refugees reaching England from Russia 120 years ago. Growing up in London, loosely connected with the local liberal Jewish community, I experienced antisemitism. Since I encountered hypocrisy amongst congregants and teachers at my synagogue and within my family I grew as an independent thinker and an activist for social justice and human rights. This has been the core of my campaigning over the past 35 years. I opposed British support for South African apartheid and racism, and more recently have been challenging British/Australian support for Israeli apartheid, which denies Palestinian people their rights – in particular, I volunteer with the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, which sails against the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Palestine, and the Jewish country Israel created upon it, is especially sensitive to Britain for religious, political and strategic reasons. Palestine was and remains something colonial. The idea that Israel is deeply connected to Europe’s Jewish problem is something which resonates with me as my ancestors arrived shortly before the Aliens Act 1905, which was introduced to stem the flow of refugees, from Russia and Poland in particular.

The last two decades the British state, supported by tabloids bearing Islamophobic front pages, has become increasingly obsessed with a war on terror and establishing a hostile environment of immigration controls. This is a world risk society, where suspicion, fiction and fear determine the present and people are prepared to sacrifice rights at the altar of security.

The UK government has moved to restrict campaigning about Israeli crimes against  Palestinian people at English universities. The Prevent Duty (Prevent) clause within the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 requires public authorities to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. Prevent operates in conjunction with increasing racism and Islamophobia, anti-Palestinianism and a new definition of antisemitism that deliberately conflates antisemitism and anti-Zionism. It is mistakenly assuming that support – especially by young Muslims – for Palestinian people resisting occupation and opposing current foreign policy is ‘radicalisation’, leading to terrorist activity.

In 2016, the British Government adopted this new definition of antisemitism and requires all Vice Chancellors to follow suit. There are very real effects on campuses – a Palestinian woman described being called a “racist” and an “antisemite” when volunteering on a Palestine solidarity stall, with some students telling her “Palestine does not exist”.

Universities are under pressure to meet perceived Prevent obligations, not to do so can impact their funding. Many have rolled out training to employees in an attempt to follow government implementation guides. Radicalisation indicators are often referred to, drawing upon an extensively critiqued science, with a propensity to target particular groups or topics. This training and implementation is objectionable, as it outsources surveillance beyond policing and security services to, in this case, university staff, with no judicial oversight.

Universities take their lead on risks from local police. In 2019, Counter Terrorism Policing produced a 24-page document to complement Prevent training which was presented at briefings and distributed to public sector workers. It notably flagged the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other non-violent campaigning groups, including Greenpeace, PETA and Stop the War, alongside violent extremist organisations such as Combat 18 and the National Front.

Universities transfer pressure downwards to student unions, who in turn pressure some student groups and it is students who are particularly affected. Many events are cancelled and onerous, discriminatory requirements are required of societies planning activities, especially during Israeli Apartheid Week.

Not everything related to Palestine is necessarily taboo or off limits. Research, teaching, charitable activities and sometimes even solidarity are acceptable, provided you are good migrants, good Muslims, etc. Campaigning is likely to become unacceptable when foreign policy or university complicity with Israeli human rights violations are highlighted, especially if working intersectionally and demanding decolonisation. In a highly publicised incident in 2019 at Kings College London, the university politically profiled students, blocked their ID cards, and prevented entry to the university.

University managements often conflate Palestine and Islam, similar to the conflation of Israel and Judaism. According to one student interviewee on campus, when people hear Palestine, ‘they almost synonymise it with terrorism’. A former National Union of Students president reported how, complaints about Prevent, were usually from ‘the Palestine society, or the Islamic society’. A national students’ representative corroborated this, describing helping more than 40 Palestine related events over 21 months.

Events that are simply calls for Palestinian freedom can be flagged as extreme Islamic threats with senior managers calling people into meetings, making last minute phone calls, demanding scripts of speakers, or restricting tickets to students only which limits the event’s reach.

Despite attacks on freedom of speech concerning Palestine at universities, students and staff are resisting and continuing to campaign for the rights of Palestinian people. Prevent has built an environment of silence and fear and although some students and staff may self-censor or limit their involvement, others refuse to shrink back. Students continue to speak out and put their education and bodies on the line as they occupy buildings, intervene in boardroom meetings and oppose former Israeli soldiers or regime representatives speaking on campus.

Let’s amplify their voices and defend those who expose and demand an end to institutional and governmental complicity in Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian people.

James Godfrey

James Godfrey is a PhD researcher in Law at Birkbeck College, University of London and visiting at Australian National University. His research examines the Prevent requirement to report perceived radicalisation and its impacts on freedom of speech regarding Israeli Occupied Palestine in universities in England. James has been active in a range of campaigning organisations fighting for social justice, locally and internationally, including as Legal Officer of City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and helping to establish and maintain the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London. James has worked as a trade union organiser in Sydney and London for more than a decade and in the last few years has been employed casually as an academic at Birkbeck, UNSW and University of Sydney.

More by James Godfrey ›

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  1. Great piece, the criminalisation of all things Palestine is the aim of Zionists. Denying voice, agency and rights in the crudest Orwellian way! We shall overcome!

  2. Thank you for highlighting the erroneous equation between defending human rights of Palestinians and support of terrorism also staining Islam and Muslims in the process. It is very important for us to be aware of the silencing going on in universities and other institutions, in order to resist these attempts to divide us.

  3. Your article exposes a pernicious strategy which aims to restrict free speed and conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, which all just people condemn.Very good article James.

  4. Powerful article about the trajectory of these silencing tactics. Dissent is tolerated unless it challenges the status quo ey?

  5. Thank you for this excellent article. The trend is alarming. I have personally experienced being “uninvited” to speak at meetings in recent years with no explanation and with increasing frequency. In the past, this had never happened though being shouted down and vilified at meetings did happen with the police being called, but now “pre-silencing” without explanation is the norm. In recent years there has been a significant increase in attempts by the Israel Lobby to smear speakers like me with outrageous, defamatory claims of anti-semitism which terrifies organisers causing them to cancel speakers.
    Lecturers are also fired or pressurised into resigning. Meanwhile the violence against Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is rising daily and speaking up is needed even more.

  6. Years ago when a small group of us in York joined the ‘Viva Palestina’ convoy and were fundraising to purchase medical supplies for Gaza we were initially given permission to take our ambulance to the local monthly food market in Hovingham ( a tiny village community). However when the day approached the permission was withdrawn – no explanation. Some time later some friends and I arranged for a showing of a Palestinian film at Helmsley Theatre ( another small village community). Along with a Palestinian friend we were going to conduct a discussion session afterwards. The initial idea was greeted with enthusiasm but then later all communication became blocked.
    No one can say for sure that the withdrawn enthusiasm for either one of these occurrences related to our public attempt to demonstrate support for Palestinians. However it’s the commonality of these cancelled opportunities that give rise to the belief that there is a force out there that assiduously undermines attempts to raise awareness as to the crimes being committed toward the Palestinians.

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