Legal attack on student democracy after King’s College London backs BDS

Pro-Israel groups seeking to use the law to subvert student union democracy targeted King’s College London Students Union (KCLSU) last week, after a decisive vote in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions

Yesterday, under severe pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, KCLSU trustees have “essentially nullified” the democratic vote, say activists.

It’s the latest “lawfare” attack seeking to repress the BDS movement in the UK.

On 25 March students at KCL had passed a motion by 348 votes to 252 calling on their union to pressure the university “to divest from Israel and from companies directly or indirectly supporting the Israeli occupation and apartheid policies.”

But yesterday trustees claimed that, although the motion would stand, the union’s resources could not be used to implement it.


After losing the vote, pro-Israel students immediately raised legal arguments objecting to the motion. These appear to have been formulated well in advance with the help of external groups.

StandWithUs, a right-wing pro-Israel group with links to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, claims to have been “at the forefront of countering the BDS at King’s College London.”

Its campus director Jonathan Hunter wrote on Facebook that the campaign had been ongoing for five months, suggesting the victory of the BDS motion – which had originally been tabled for last October – had been anticipated and the lawfare strategy pre-planned.

Hunter also said he had worked “with the amazing team at UK Lawyers for Israel” – a group linked to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain which has ironically sought to use the law to repress campaigns for Israel to be held accountable to international law.

The StandWithUs complaint sent to KCLSU trustees was signed by 10 students. It claimed that the BDS motion was in violation of charities legislation, warned of “potential legal consequences” and threatened “if our complaints are not properly addressed we will make formal complaints holding Student Representatives and KCLSU’s trustees responsible.”

A second version – claiming to be neutral on the issue of BDS itself and simply wishing to uphold “standards of professionalism and diligence” — was also sent to the trustee board which met on 27 March.

Elite backlash

In reality, Charity Commission guidelines offer substantial scope for campaigning in line with a charity’s stated objectives, so long as campaigning does not become the main focus of the charity’s activities.

And section 3.1.3 of KCLSU’s charitable purposes clearly states that one of the objectives of KCLSU is to provide “representation … on matters affecting [students’] welfare and interests.”

As for the StandWithUs claim that the BDS motion would be “discriminatory,” the landmark case of Ronnie Fraser verses University and College Union dismissed this as entirely unfounded (full judgement here).

The tribunal in that case concluded that it represented “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means” — which bears comparison to the tactics being employed at King’s.

Despite the vacuity of the legal arguments, great political pressure has been brought to bear, much like the elite backlash seen in the US following the adoption of boycott policy by the American Studies Association.

For example, according to StandWithUs, London Assembly Member and Labour Friends of Israel stalwart Andrew Dismore was asked last December to elicit a statement on boycotts from London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson.

King’s College London itself is constitutionally independent from the student union and has direct links to Israeli university the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya via its International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in the War Studies department as well as some remaining contracts with Veolia and G4S — despite student campaigns against the latter in particular.

The university published a clearly pre-prepared statement distancing the institution from the student union’s decision to support the boycott on the same evening that the motion passed.

Defending student union democracy

Under this external pressure, the KCLSU trustees suggested in a statement published yesterday that the union’s resources could not be used “to implement the ‘Resolves’ section of the motion or otherwise promote the BDS movement.”

This came despite a letter to the trustees signed by 140 elected student union officers from across the UK asking them to respect the democratic decision of King’s students.

Ihtesham Afzal, president of KCL Action Palestine society, told me: “We view this as an attempt to override the democratic processes of our students union. We campaigned hard, we won the arguments and we won the vote by a large margin. Even those who don’t support BDS should be able to see that when hundreds of students cast votes it is wrong for a twelve-person trustee board to undermine their decision because of external pressure.”

Similar motions in support of Palestinian right and BDS principles have been adopted at more than 15 other students unions including the University of West England, Sheffield University and the University of London Union. Since January 2012 the NUS has also supported campaigns against companies operating in illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and Israeli Apartheid Week events were held on more than 25 British campuses this year.

While on the one hand frequently claiming that student BDS campaigns “will have no effect,” pro-Israel groups are increasingly adopting aggressive and anti-democratic strategies including lawfare to try to stop Palestine solidarity activism on campuses in the US and UK especially.


Hilary Aked

Hilary Aked's picture

Hilary Aked (@hilary_aked) is a London-based freelance writer and researcher, an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a PhD student at the University of Bath researching the pro-Israel lobby in the UK. They also write for Spinwatch, Ceasefire, OpenDemocracy and Huffington Post.