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Students react to NUS Israel boycott


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Despite previous peace talks between Israel and Palestine imploding in a cloud of shells and broken cease fires, there appears to be a glimmer of hope for resolution as discussions have continued in Cairo. However, whilst the region finds itself locked in political stalemate, people across the world have mobilised in their shared horror at the flood of images of houses, streets and schools consumed by smoke and ash as the death toll has steadily crept up.

Many public figures have been eager to align themselves with pro-Palestine protest in what has become an endlessly divisive debate. While many, including prominent journalists such as Jon Snow and the ever-polemical Russell Brand, have offered pointed critiques of military tactics used in the Israeli offensive on Gaza some have gone further, including Lib Dem MP David Ward who claimed he would happily fire rockets at Israel if he were living in Gaza and George Galloway, who has vowed to make Bradford an unwelcome place for Israeli tourists. As protest marches spring up in support of a peaceful resolution, we have also seen synagogues torched in France and petrol bombs thrown in Germany.

In the midst of the media storm, the NUS decided to back BDS, a global initiative that aims to increase both political and economic pressure on Israel, and has agreed to boycott Israeli companies. Reactions to the decision taken by the NUS have been mixed: some students have been unsettled by the decision and have criticised a lack of transparency. However, others have claimed it was a bold move and showed the NUS standing on the right side of history, as comparisons were readily made with support given by the NUS to Mandela in the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. 

“During South African apartheid, NUS took the decision to stand in solidarity with oppressed South Africans, making Nelson Mandela our honorary Vice-President. I believe we have acted in the same spirit today by deciding to boycott companies that facilitate the Israeli military's capacity to massacre Palestinians” argued James Elliott of the NUS NEC, who supported the motion.

The motion represents a vocal condemnation of actions taken by the Israeli military, tactics which have been roundly condemned as “disproportionate” as UN schools and hospitals have been badly hit. The NUS is now preparing itself for an internal audit to ensure that it does not work with or support companies that have been complicit in aiding the Israeli military.

However, the NUS NEC has also faced criticism due to the potentially divisive nature of such a decision taken by an institution charged with representing a diverse and multi faith student body. Some students have voiced fears that by adopting a stance, the NUS are encouraging students to pick sides in a complex debate that cannot be easily diluted.

Beth Button, president of NUS Wales, voted against BDS as “there are more inclusive ways to take action” and confirmed that her position on BDS does not contradict her condemnation of the current situation in Gaza.

The Union of Jewish Students has also expressed concern about whether the new NUS policy is conducive to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East.

"The passing of this motion is a failure of NUS to maintain its duty of care to the variety of student groups it must endeavour to represent [...] NUS NEC have passed a policy that will only divide student groups, undermine interfaith relations, and suffocate progressive voices for peace on both sides.” 

The UJS has also highlighted the potentially discriminatory nature of such a stance and how this could extend to Jewish students.  

"The motion supports the BDS movement, a movement whose tactics are inherently indiscriminate and whose boundaries are undefined. Whatever your politics on the conflict, when there is a strong campaign with ill-defined boundaries, there is no way to monitor the areas and people you will end up targeting. "

In an illuminating piece about the rise of anti-Zionism, Jordan Jacobs, a European Law student at Warwick, explains how many Jewish companies, industries and students are now faced with a stark choice: entirely disassociate from Israel or face condemnation as anti-Israel sentiment continues to escalate.

A key example is the recent pressure on the UK Jewish Film Festival to reconsider its acceptance of funding from the Israeli embassy, which was an insignificant £1,400 in comparison to the £72,000 received from the British Arts Council. This criticism of Israeli funding was in spite of the festival showing films which have actively critiqued Israeli occupation.

A potential problem of NUS support for BDS is the underlying assumption that buying Israeli products or supporting academia or the film industry in Israel is tantamount to agreement with Israeli military decisions. This could risk alienating many Jewish students who may disagree with methods adopted by the IDF but who do not want to sever ties with Israel, which for many is a "cornerstone of their culture."

However, claims of BDS anti-Semitism have been rejected by James Elliott of the NUS NEC, who argued that such claims were “disgusting and false.”

“People have disingenuously tried to claim BDS targets Jews, when actually it targets institutions and companies complicit in the occupation.”

As the debate continues to rage, it becomes difficult to navigate the treacherous terrain between the need for condemnation of humanitarian abuses in Gaza and the possibility of further deepening the divide between Palestine and Israel, and now potentially between students. 

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