Students at Oxford University will this week vote on a controversial motion to boycott Israel, after a tumultuous week that has seen hate mail, accusations of racism and a furious exit from a debate by MP George Galloway .
The Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU) meets on Wednesday to decide finally on a motion backing the boycott of Israel, its companies and institutions. The motion, which would be tabled at the National Union of Students conference in Sheffield in April, calls on the student body to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, in protest at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its hindrance of attempts to create a Palestinian state.
Both the proposer and the seconder of the motion have received threatening emails: the seconder has withdrawn his support and the proposer has requested that her name not be publicised.
Last Wednesday, Galloway, MP for Bradford West, walked out of a debate at Christ Church College. Galloway arrived 90 minutes late, delivered a speech condemning Israel and then interrupted a reply being made by Eylon Aslan-Levy, a student at Brasenose College.
“You said ‘we’. Are you an Israeli?” Galloway asked. When Aslan-Levy said he was, Galloway walked out. “I don’t recognise Israel and I don’t debate with Israelis,” he said, to gasps of surprise and mutters of “racism”.
Mahmood Naji of Christ Church College, who had invited the MP, said: “He agreed to a debate and I though he would welcome open dialogue. I was amazed. He left because he wanted to make a statement. His main interest was demonstrating that he supported the boycott movement.”
The BDS movement urges a boycott of Israeli exports, including vegetables, fruit and Dead Sea beauty products, and of firms that do business in Israel, such as Caterpillar, security firm G4S and waste management company Veolia. Some BDS supporters have also disrupted cultural events involving Israeli performers.
Last week, OUSU gave the colleges a further two weeks to debate the issue after most failed to come to a decision.
Henry Watson of Magdalen College said the atmosphere at the university was fraught: “People thought it was a question of supporting Israel or Palestine or supporting peace. The boycott goes against everything the university stands for. The idea that we are not going to read your books or articles or hear your arguments on the basis of your nationality is ridiculous.”
Magdalen College voted 39-3 against the motion, Watson said.
Aslan-Levy, who was born and brought up in Britain, said he is keen for the Palestinian conflict to be settled diplomatically and disagrees with the settler movement and its representatives, such as Dani Dayan, who spoke at the union last Friday. “In a lot of colleges, students are concerned about OUSU making foreign policy,” he said. “In my college, the only argument was whether the motion was rejected or the college abstained. The college voted 20-15 to reject the motion.”
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Israeli settlers’ council, Yesha, was at the union to debate the question, “Settlers: War Criminals or Patriots?” for a debate to be broadcast on al-Jazeera in April. Al-Jazeera had hired security guards, but Dayan was booed once and given polite applause.
Not all students have immersed themselves in this debate. The Oxford Student newspaper reported that a member of the Bullingdon Club was fined for setting off a firework at a nightclub earlier this month. According to the paper, the student was accepted into the club after an initiation ceremony which included burning a £50 note in front of a tramp.