Leeds University referendum threatens to silence Palestinian activists

Leeds University Union agreed last week, by a vote of 12 to 11, to send a motion to referendum which will label anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism and silence pro-Palestinian groups on campus.

The motion, shrouded in the language of combating anti-Semitism, is a reversal of a motion passed two years ago which gave Palestinian activists at Leeds University the rights enjoyed by their counterparts throughout the country. If passed, organizations which have an anti-Zionist platform, such as the Socialist Workers Party and the Palestine Solidarity Group, will be prevented from receiving funding from the union and prevented from holding many of their events.

The motion claims, without providing any supporting evidence, that “anti-Semitism is increasing significantly both across the country and within universities and student unions” and resolves to adopt the seemingly innocuous EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism. The EUMC working definition, which the British government has so far refrained from explicitly adopting, has been seized upon by pro-Israeli groups across the country and used to silence criticism of Israel by claiming that anti-Semitism includes “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

If adopted, the motion will be shut down debate on the extent to which Israel should label itself as a state for the Jewish people as opposed to a state for all its citizens, such as the United Kingdom and all other liberal democracies. Thus an issue, which is openly discussed in academia, civil society and even within the Israeli government itself, will become forbidden on the Leeds campus.

Commenting on the motion, the Jewish peace group, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, stated that “We find this unhelpful, to put it mildly, and believe that it harms the struggle against anti-Semitism rather than helping it, by severely distorting what the real problems are.” They added, “We hope that the University of Leeds Student Union will not be foolish enough to adopt the motion on the topic when it comes up for debate. It will do nothing to help counter the real dangers of anti-Semitism in our society because so much of the working definition is, in our view, misdirected.”

One of the many parts of the definition they opposed is the example of how “anti-Semitism manifests itself,” by “applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As another peace organization, European Jews for a Just Peace noted “this is a formulation that allows any criticism of Israel to be dismissed on the grounds that it is not simultaneously applied to every other defaulting state at the same time.”

Jews against Zionism, an organization which represents over 150,000 Jews world-wide, commented that “One of the well-known tactics of Zionists to silence their critics is to accuse them of anti-Semitism. Of course, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two separate things.”

They also take issue with another part of the working definition which classes “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations” as anti-Semitic. They assert that whether it is anti-Semitic or not “depends if the accusation is made at the Jews in general, or at particular Jews. We are greatly pained when we hear blanket accusations against our people, or any people, for that matter. But certain Jews may, by their actions and words, demonstrate a greater loyalty to the Zionist state than to their own country. There is nothing wrong with pointing this out.”

A representative of the Leeds Student Palestine Solidarity Group (PSG) commented that “Under current Union policy we are well within our rights to express our opposition to Zionism and defend the rights of Palestinians who suffer discrimination and human rights abuses on the basis of their race, within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The passing of this motion would mean, however, a serious curtailment of the activities of the PSG on campus simply to satisfy the political views of another section of the student body. We believe that people should be allowed to hear both sides of the debate and make up their own minds.”

The motion will go to referendum the week beginning Friday, 28 November and the results will be announced on Friday, 5 December.

To register your opposition to the motion contact:

University Secretary Roger Gair

University Vice-Chancellor Michael Arthur

Chief Executive of Leeds University Union Lesley Dixon


  • The status of Leeds University as an institution which encourages free thought.
  • The fact that the motion will shut down an area of perfectly legitimate debate.
  • That the reputation of Leeds University will be seriously undermined if this motion if passed.
  • Asking these officials to ensure that freedom of speech at Leeds is protected.

To learn more about how you can support the campaign contact the Leeds Palestine Solidarity Group visit www.leedspsg.org or email info AT leedspsg DOT org.