NUS should look to its anti-Apartheid roots and show solidarity with the Palestinians
In 2012 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC) and the 90th birthday of the National Union of Students (NUS). The significance of this coincidence shouldn’t be overlooked; ask the previous generation what they think of when you mention the NUS and they are likely to mention the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
To this day, NUS is continuing its proud history of international activism from Burma to Swaziland, yet there’s been a large elephant in the room when it comes to solidarity with a particular group of people – Palestinians. Which is strange, because Palestine is the biggest international human rights issue on our campuses. Thousands of students up and down the country, with over 30 Palestine Societies, are advocating and campaigning on the issue.
Back in 2009, no less than thirty-three universities went into occupation over Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, the biggest student mobilisation in this country since the 1970s. And just last term, hundreds of students in London crammed into a Palestine meeting at ULU sponsored by no less than 12 London Palestine Societies.
Yet for years within our national body these passionate and dedicated students have been written off as “divisive”, “alienating” and of course, “anti-Semitic”.
Thankfully times are changing, and the NUS is taking heed of its membership. Free from many of the careerist politicians-in-the-making which have plagued our union of late, serious work is now being done in the student movement to change the discourse around Palestine and Israel to one of human rights and anti-racism, not divisiveness and controversy.
Two very recent developments illustrate this point: one is NUS President Liam Burns publicly denouncing the academic links between KCL and a private cosmetics company based in an illegal Israeli settlement on Palestinian territory. The other is the NUS’ Society and Citizenship Zone launching a divestment campaign encouraging students to campaign against two companies in particular: Eden Springs, an Israeli water company based illegally in yet another settlement, and a French company called Veolia. The latter holds huge investments in a profoundly racist transport infrastructure for the Israeli settlements, connecting them to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at the expense of Palestinian schools, farms and normal life in general for these “unwanted” peoples. Both companies operate many services on British campuses, so keep an eye out!
While there are terrifying similarities in the racist apparatuses of both pre-1994 South Africa, and present-day Israel, there is actually a more important comparison emerging from these recent developments in NUS. Finally, like with the Anti-Apartheid Movement, we are taking our lead from the oppressed themselves, not from our own “solutions”, not from self-ascribed “experts”, and certainly not from Western powers looking for short cuts to keep their dominance stable. Following in the footsteps of Mandela’s ANC, Palestinians have called for international supporters to launch similar campaigns of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with International law and respects their human rights. And when I say “Palestinians”, I mean civil society as a whole, not one faction or political party but the grassroots: Students’ Unions, disabled peoples’ organisations, refugee groups, LGBTQ activists and many, many more.
This international campaign has scored huge successes already. Agrexo, an Israeli agricultural company exporting goods made in settlements, recently filed for bankruptcy. Veolia are losing millions of pounds worth of contracts through diligent campaigning in local communities, the most recent success being West London council.
No doubt there will be follow up articles to this one accusing me of rejecting dialogue, negotiations, “peace”, two-states etc etc. But you have to ask these people, whom are they speaking on behalf of? Certainly not the millions of Palestinians in refugee camps, not the Palestinian Gandhis being shot at on their weekly non-violent protests, not the Palestinians of Gaza suffering treatment worse than animals, and certainly not the Palestinians living inside Israel facing the daily barbarity of a racist government that doesn’t want them there. Far from cutting off Palestinians from their Israeli sympathisers, the BDS movement has united Israeli activists and Palestinians together on an equal footing in a genuine spirit of solidarity. The Israeli Government are only too aware of the danger this movement poses to their regime; a recent law passed in the Israeli parliament makes it illegal for Israelis to advocate for BDS.
Malcolm X once said that he wasn’t “anti-American”, but was interested only in telling the truth and “if the truth condemns America, then she stands condemned.” In exactly the same spirit, campaigning for Palestine is not “picking on Israel” any more than campaigning for Tibet is “picking on China”, or any country abusing peoples’ human rights.
Campaigning for the rights of our fellow students abroad is one of the most rewarding things to take away from your University experience; it breaks down barriers of race, nationality and religion.
Image by Millie K Nice.