Last week, the Liverpool Guild of students held a preferendum on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which set out a plan for the Guild to boycott Israel.
According to the Guild website, the motion aims to advocate divestment from companies that are complicit in the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, from those which support the Wall, to companies providing direct financial aid and selling weaponry.
Companies complicit in the discrimination against Palestinians living within the state of Israel will also no longer be able to do business with the Liverpool Guild of Students. The proposal limits the Guild from stocking products from Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, and states that the Guild should lobby the wider University to follow suit.
Harry Anderson, President of the Liverpool Guild of Students said – “At the moment we’re still trying to work out exactly what will happen. The Guild is governed by the Charity Commission so this may affect what exactly we can and cannot do. We will let the student body know when we are sure what changes will be made – it’s important for students to know what they voted for and how we are implementing it”.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine is a hugely complex geopolitical state of affairs which sprung out of a desire for Jews to have their own country following World War II. It is simultaneously about occupation of land and religion.
Critics of the Israeli occupation argue that it is closer to South African apartheid than a mere geopolitical conflict. For instance, since 1st October this year, Israel has killed 86 Palestinians, injuring over 1,000, arresting many, displacing and controlling many more.
Perhaps the clearest image of the inequality came from a 2009 Amnesty International report found that Israeli occupiers were growing lawns and building swimming pools whilst Palestinians struggled to obtain enough clean water due to depletion of underground reserves.
However, some argue that the media overstates and oversimplifies Israel’s human rights breaches, noting, for instance, that amongst the “children killed by Israel”, counted by mainstream media, are people like Anas Yousef Qandee – a 17-year-old terrorist.
Critics of the boycott movement often note that this conflict is two-sided, on-going and one of the most complex issues of our time.
According to a member of the university’s Friends of Palestine campaign group, a motion was submitted over a year and a half ago, but problems with the Guild Summit held the motion back.
The Guild was attempting to be apolitical, which was problematic for the Friends of Palestine Society. The Sphinx understands the BDS campaign to be a political pressure group, designed to put economic pressure on some complicit companies.
In terms of what the BDS movement will actually mean, the Friends of Palestine Society say not much will change for students – there are a couple of products in the Guild shop which will be taken down, and that the Guild will not be able to renew previous contracts with companies like G4S.
The really great thing, for Friends of Palestine, is that the Guild will now have to lobby the university. While the Palestinian civil society supports the boycott, the government actively opposes it.
The BDS campaign is not just for Liverpool – it is a global attempt to put mounting pressure upon Israel to end its campaign in Palestine, similar to the anti-Apartheid boycotts of South African trade during the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.
In 1970, students at the University of Liverpool protested against our University’s investment in South Africa, and, with the support of Tory backbenchers in the House of Commons, Liverpool University poured excruciatingly harsh punishments upon these student protesters.
One was expelled, with seven others suspended from university for up to two years, including Channel 4’s Jon Snow, who abandoned his Law degree to pursue a career in broadcasting.
Some argue that the University of Liverpool’s history in the face of student protest demonstrates just how important last week’s BDS vote was: that this is a better and safer era for political action.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson caused a stir last week during his Israeli visit, when he made comments referring to those who condemn the Israeli occupation of Palestine as “a bunch of, you know, corduroy-jacketed academics.
“They are by and large lefty academics who have no real standing in the matter and I think are highly unlikely to be influential on Britain. This is a very, very small minority in our country who are calling for this.”
More than 300 academics last month pledged to boycott Israeli universities in response to human rights violations. Anti-Israeli feeling, in light of its treatment of Palestinians, has grown hugely in recent years. Meanwhile, however, the USA recently pledged to cut $80 million worth of Palestinian aid in an act of solidarity with Israel, demonstrating how much this issue revolves around geopolitical alliances.
Israel is the most politically stable country in the Middle East by Western standards: it is seen as a liberal democracy and a large player in the world’s technological market. Critics of the BDS movement argue that cutting Israel off from the West undermines its strong democratic virtue.
Other critics think boycotting Israel is far too simplistic an action and that it may hurt Palestine’s economy and people as much, if not more, than Israel’s. Whilst support for BDS is growing, it remains controversial.
One student at the university said that she was “delighted” with the result. She felt that following thoughtful discussion and debate, the mood on campus has been truly reflected in the vote.
“Students from all faiths and backgrounds believe that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people and their territories is unjust, akin to apartheid and thus cannot be allowed to continue. I hope the Guild will lobby the University to divest from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation.”
A third year Physics student said today that he was “glad that something’s happened and it wasn’t just completely ignored… although it’s more of a statement than actual substance, isn’t it?”.
Another third year student said: “I feel very proud of those in the student body, who did vote, and felt that it was more important that human liberties and rights were upheld. I’m very proud.”
The Guild’s preferendum has its sceptics, however. One second year student, who asked not to be named, said: “[the success of the BDS campaign] will be disastrous. It will have the most inconceivably small effect on Israel and the real people it will affect are the students at the university.
“Having a BDS movement in place is correlated with increased levels of extremism around the world, [and] I don’t believe it is the Guild’s place to have such a high-profile political standing; its main objective should be to better its students, not cater to the political agenda of a few.
“As far as I know there were approximately 1000 votes which represents less than 5 per cent of the student body […] a huge proportion of the votes on both sides were secured by walking around campus with an iPad. In my opinion it’s ridiculous that there was even a vote.”
Another student The Sphinx questioned accepted that it is important that students are free to express their opinion, but was “more disappointed at the campaign as a whole, that it was a campaign of exclusion rather than solidarity on campus”.
A second year Philosophy and Literature student expressed apprehension about the outcome of the vote: “the boycotting of trade from anywhere is… not good. It’s an unreasonable thing to do.”
Another former student took care to tell The Sphinx that a close family member had recently benefitted from Isreali cancer drugs, suggesting that if the Guild were to truly stick to its word, it would have to give up technology such as Microsoft and Apple computers, since much of the manufacture of this technology deals with Israel.
“The majority of the student body need more education […] Friends of Palestine think that because they can shout the loudest, they represent the student body. They do not. All this does is make Jewish and Israeli students feel unwelcome at the Guild.”
The Friends of Palestine Society, wanted to stress that the movement was not antisemitic and was against all kinds of racism. They told The Sphinx that boycotting technology companies would not be the primary aim of the movement.
Another student, who also wished to remain anonymous, said that the lack of tangible effects show that this is merely “a way for activists to feel like they have some control over the conflict… the only people it will affect much are the Jewish students at the University of Liverpool.”
Harry Anderson has further said that the first priority of the student officers will be to ensure that all students feel safe, and would urge any students who feel marginalised to speak to the student officers.
He noted that low voter turnout was a problem of Western democracy as a whole and that it was important to remember that just because a relatively small percentage of the student body turned out to vote, it doesn’t mean that they are apathetic.
“As the Guild’s first preferendum, there is always opportunity to improve. The Guild already works with students on a large number of campaign issues, from Higher Education policy to feminism.”
The preferendum was publicised on the Guild website and in an email sent to all students.
Second year English and Politics Student Alex Ward “had no idea” about the vote. “It’s interesting to find out about it”, said Alex, “I don’t think anyone I know would be aware of it”.
When asked whether the result would affect students, one first year Geography student said: “I have no idea. I don’t know, to be honest with you… I have honestly no idea… I haven’t heard anything about it, I don’t know anything about it, so I just don’t know.”
The University of Liverpool Jewish Society declined to comment formally before the release of their official statement. Both Friends of Palestine and the University of Liverpool Jewish Society are expected to release statements tomorrow.