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University statement on Palestine Solidarity encampment affirms right to protest, outlines investment policy 

The University today released an official response to the pro-Palestine encampment organised by Oxford Action for Palestine (OA4P) in an email sent to all students and staff from Vice-Chancellor Irene Tracey. 

Tracey’s email reiterated the university’s commitment to freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest, while acknowledging that the protests have resulted in some members of the University and the public “feeling fearful or uncomfortable.” She further reminded students and staff that “[e]xam season is, of course, upon us and it is imperative that everyone allows students to prepare for, and take, their exams undisturbed.”

The email comes after Tracey’s visit to Downing Street on Thursday 9th May when Rishi Sunak advised university leaders from across Britain to take further measures against antisemitism on campuses.

As a part of its measures against antisemitism, the statement reiterated the University’s use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism “as a guide to interpreting and understanding antisemitism” although with additional clarifications. The clarifications, as recommended by the House committee on Home affairs, add the statement “It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent” to the official definition. 

The statement did not include plans to look into divestment from Israeli companies and arms companies, a major demand of pro-Palestine campus protesters. It stated that the University is in compliance with its own policy on investment in arms, which includes stipulations against “direct investment in companies which manufacture arms that are illegal in the UK, and investment in funds which invest primarily in such companies.” 

In response to the demands to divest from Barclays, the University said that they depend on the bank due to its “large, complex financial needs, and international reach”, and reiterated that they regularly engage with the bank on a range of regulatory issues, including the war in the Gaza Strip. Barclays’ annual shareholder meeting on 9th May was disrupted by activists protesting its alleged links to violence in Gaza and the bank said last week that they do not invest its own money in companies that supply weapons used by Israel in Gaza but that it only trades shares in such companies on behalf of clients.

The email comes as universities across the US and Ireland have reached agreements with campus encampments to close in exchange for concessions regarding divestment from Israeli companies and arms companies. 

American universities including Brown, Northwestern, Rutgers and the University of Wisconsin are among those who have struck deals with encampments in recent days in which they have agreed to open public debate or review on the question of divestment. On 8th May, Trinity College Dublin pledged to cut ties with Israeli companies. 

The statement further highlighted that the University’s endowment is operated through external asset managers and said that neither the University nor the fund own shares in companies directly. 

With regards to the University’s international academic relationships, the statement asserted that it is “essential that Oxford maintains open communications and professional links with universities everywhere.” While the University did not explicitly address the encampment’s calls for a boycott of Israeli universities, it stated that their “Committee to Review Donations and Research Funding” already scrutinised any international research funding relationships. 

The University also highlighted their renewed commitment last term to fellowships with the Council for At Risk Academics (CARA) to support at-risk Palestinian academics in applying to Oxford, “in the defence of academic and university freedoms worldwide.”

In its role as a University of Sanctuary, the University emphasised their commitment to “support students and academics who have been forced to flee conflict or persecution.” The statement also announced that the university is working with the colleges to find ways to “to fundraise for dedicated Palestinian scholarships.”

In response to the statement, the Oxford Action for Palestine coalition, the organisers of the encampment, said they were “severely disappointed” in an official comment and noted that the statement “does not address [their] direct requests to negotiate.” 

They also said they were alarmed by the University’s language, which they said implied their protest was “largely” peaceful rather and prompted fear on campus. 

The comment concluded: “We urge the Administration to understand this moment in history and the risks the University is taking by refusing to act. We request a meeting immediately.”  

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