London’s SOAS backs Israel boycott in referendum landslide

BDS Working Group

Campaigners at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, are celebrating a big victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement after a referendum to endorse an academic boycott of Israel passed by a landslide.

The results, released Friday after five days of voting, showed that an overwhelming 73 percent of more than two thousand voters backed the boycott. Those eligible to vote on whether SOAS should cut all ties with Israeli academic institutions included students, faculty and contract staff.

Although other university communities, student unions and academic bodies in several countries have backed the boycott in referendums, the all-inclusive nature of the SOAS vote is precedent setting.

Following the announcement of the results, the SOAS “Yes” Campaign issued a statement emphazising that the victory “has demonstrated the popular appeal of BDS as a powerful form of protest and resistance.”

“By voting in favor of the academic boycott, the SOAS community has confirmed its unwavering commitment to freedom, equality and justice for all Palestinians and has reasserted its call for an end to Israeli apartheid, oppressive occupation, and settler-colonialism,” the statement, quoted in full below, adds.

Festive atmosphere

Students anxiously gathered to await the results before their 7pm release at the SOAS bar.

Every sector of the SOAS community endorsed the BDS call: 75 percent of students; 91 percent of cleaners, security and catering staff and 60 percent of academics voted in favor of the boycott.

The atmosphere at the bar was festive. Members and students from all political groups on campus, including the Justice for Cleaners campaign, LGBTQIA+ Society and the Students’ Union celebrated alongside Palestine Society and BDS Working Group members to the melodies of Palestinian folkloric and Arab pop music until late into the night.

This video, made by Amar Shabandar, records the moment the results were announced.

The call for academic boycott had already been endorsed by these and other groups at SOAS, including the Tamil Society and Kashmir Solidarity Movement.

Indeed, the SOAS Students Union has had a BDS policy since 2005. The Students’ Union-run campus shop, for instance, continues to exclude all Israeli products from its shelves.

Similarly, the LGBTQIA+ Society recently voted in favor of keeping anti-Zionism as part of its safe-space policy. Among the most powerful SOAS supporters of BDS is the Justice for Cleaners campaign, mainly comprised of outsourced SOAS cleaners who have been campaigning for their rights since 2006.

Journalists affiliated with right-wing newspapers maintained a strong presence on campus yesterday, constantly trying to pressure Palestine Society members into making statements and justifications to them.

Their efforts having failed, the journalists, together with the “No” campaigners, disappeared before the results were announced.

BDS Working Group

On Wednesday, the “No” Campaign invited Israeli and pro-Zionist scholars to speak at SOAS. During the event, speakers made racist statements and the Israeli flag kept falling off the wall.

At least one member of the racist Jewish Defense League (JDL) was present at the event co-organized by the right-wing Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.

Israeli universities backed Gaza attack

The BDS victory at SOAS is the first step toward putting pressure on management to implement an academic boycott of Israel, particularly against Hebrew University, with which SOAS has institutional ties.

Hebrew University, along with most other Israeli universities, fully supported Israel’s summer assault on Gaza that killed more than 2,200 people, more than 500 of them children. 

The “Yes” Campaign, run mainly by the BDS Working Group in collaboration with the Students’ Union and Palestine Society, registered more than one victory.

It has shown the interconnection between liberation struggles against all forms of oppression, whether class-based or patriarchal. It has also been inclusive of Jewish students and academics long denied a platform in Israel and among Zionist groups in the UK.

The Palestine Society has constantly reaffirmed its commitment to the struggle against racism, including anti-Semitism, and will continue to campaign for a full implementation of the academic boycott. Other universities, in the UK and elsewhere, should follow the path the SOAS community has taken. 

“Yes” Campaign press release

A historic victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement was achieved today in the referendum on the academic boycott of Israel, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Out of 2,056 votes cast, an overwhelming majority of 73 percent voted in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions. This victory reinforces the demands of the BDS call issued in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organizations.

The voting took place between 23 and 27 February. The referendum was school-wide, that is, it was open to all members of the SOAS community. This included current students, academics, non-academic staff, university governors and outsourced workers such as cleaners, security and catering staff. SOAS represents one of the most diverse student bodies in the UK with roughly 6,000 students and staff of multi-faith backgrounds from over 133 countries. The referendum was called for by the Students’ Union, and was conducted in an open, fair and transparent environment. Both the Yes and No campaigners were given equal platforms to hold panel discussions and debates.

The academic boycott campaign was led by students and staff from various nationalities, backgrounds, and faith groups reflecting the broad support for the boycott. It has demonstrated the popular appeal of BDS as a powerful form of protest and resistance.

By voting in favor of the academic boycott, the SOAS community has confirmed its unwavering commitment to freedom, equality and justice for all Palestinians and has reasserted its call for an end to Israeli apartheid, oppressive occupation, and settler-colonialism.

Presently, SOAS has ties with the Hebrew University, which unapologetically joined the “war effort” last summer when the Israeli army murdered over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza. In October 2014, the US weapons-producer Lockheed Martin announced that a cooperation agreement had been signed with Yissum, a technology firm that belongs to the Hebrew University.

The academic boycott campaign stresses that the boycott does not contradict academic freedom as it targets Israeli institutions complicit in the oppression of Palestinians, not individuals. Open enquiry, free exchange of ideas, and intellectual freedom are crucial to every academic community, but freedom can only be real when it is afforded to all. This has to include the Palestinians.

The Palestine Society and the BDS campaign at SOAS state:

“This historic result has brought us one step further in our struggle for freedom and justice. We do not tolerate any collaboration with academic institutions which are complicit in human rights violations and which do not practice the values of academic freedom and equality. We call upon other universities to show their solidarity by joining the academic boycott.”

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Young people are proving to be the key to ending Israel's apartheid just as they were in South Africa. It is so refreshing to see their moral courage and their insistence on doing the right thing against the establishment. Israel will not be able to overcome the power these young people have in moving decency and fair play forward. Congratulations to them. They are magnificent.