OUSU has delayed voting on a motion which calls for the NUS to boycott Israel as 18 common rooms are yet to decide their stance on the motion.
Voting was due to occur at the 5th week OUSU meeting. However, an amendment was suggested and passed, claiming that the motion’s “controversial” nature meant that Common Rooms needed more time to debate the issue. The original motion will now be debated and voted on in the 7th week OUSU meeting.
The motion states that “We [OUSU and the NUS] have a moral responsibility to fight injustice” and demands that Israel end its occupation of “all Arab lands.” It goes on to say “Palestinian civil society, including organisations in Gaza, has called for a campaign of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law.” These measures are described as “non-violent punitive”.
The motion was proposed by Emily Cousens of Wadham and originally seconded by Yulin Zhang of Wolfson College. However, in emails to OUSU reps, OUSU president David Townsend stated that the seconder dropped out after “reflecting on the issue and not being comfortable with it.” He also acknowledged the “potentially controversial” nature of the motion.
The three resolutions of the proposed motion are to “Condemn violence and successive breaches of international law by both Israel and Palestine”; to join the BDS movement against Israel; and thirdly, to “Conduct research into Higher Education institutions’ contacts, relations, investment and commercial relationships that may be implicated in violating Palestinian human rights as stated by the BDS movement.”
This motion, if passed, will be presented as OUSU’s position at the next NUS conference and hence as being representative of the views of Oxford students. A motion has already been passed by Wadham SU for Wadham to officially join the BDS movement and to “Pressure the university to divest itself from and terminate any contracts with companies that are complicit with Israeli violations of international law.”
The BDS movement was set up in 2007, and is described on its website as a “global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights.”
Eylon Aslan-Levy, a third-year PPEist at Brasenose, spoke against the motion in the OUSU meeting. He told Cherwell, “It is disturbing that OUSU is debating whether to join an academic and cultural boycott on Israel: that a university, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, should blacklist the universities, cultural groups or civil society of any country, is an outrage.”
Ben Goldstein, a PPEist from Lincoln, stated, “Motions like this are highly divisive to JCRs, and alienate people (such as the hundreds of Israeli students and many Jews) from OUSU. BDS is a radical movement which will harm process towards a two-state solution; it implies the rejection of important Israeli academics and its intentions are radical in a way that the majority of Oxford students are not.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, endorsed by BDS, urges “colleagues in the international community” to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.”
In 2006, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) voted a motion in favour of a boycott of Israeli lecturers and academic institutions who do not publicly dissociate themselves from Israel’s “apartheid policies, including the construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices.” Some academics described the academic boycott as being anti-semitic in effect.
Cousens defended her motion, claiming, “There is a history and a current appetite within NUS for constructive engagement to support human rights. Last year a Freedom for Palestine motion was passed and the boycott of Eden Springs and Veolia, two companies that are involved in the violation of the rights of Palestinians, means that this motion is the logical progression and so should command high levels of support. The investment in arms companies that supply Israel, such as BAE systems to name just one, is an example of Oxford University being implicated in the violation of human rights in Palestine and Israel.”
Debate at the meeting centred on how political OUSU should be. One side argued that delaying the vote would cause an “atmosphere of contention” in the university and that Oxford University should be a “depoliticised campus” with “freedom of thought.” The other side called this a “tyranny of silence” and compared backing the BDS movement to the boycott of the South African football team in the 1980s. James Norrie, a DPhil student at Wolfson, argued, “The apolitical argument is actually just a political – but right wing – position which seeks to validate and support the status quo.”
It was also mentioned that in May 2011, the then-president of the NUS, Aaron Porter personally denounced a previous motion to “strongly condemn Israel’s siege on Gaza and actively campaign for it to be lifted in accordance with international law.”
James Newton, who proposed the amendment to delay the vote said, “I’m really glad that the amendment went through this evening. Hopefully this will also be setting a precedent at OUSU that JCRs will be fully consulted on big issues like this.”