Last week’s emergency rally for Gaza, where over 100 University of Cambridge students gathered to call for an end to the “massacre” in Gaza was neither surprising nor shocking.
The decision of the protest’s organisers to neither issue an apology or clarification regarding their stance after it became public knowledge that the majority of those killed were self-admitted Hamas terrorists is sadly neither surprising nor shocking as well.
What was both surprising and shocking was the decision of the Cambridge University Women’s Campaign to both support the protest and refuse to own up to their severe error in judgement by throwing the weight of their campaign behind this protest.
Purporting to, “work to eliminate all forms of oppression and discrimination…in the University at an institutional, social, and cultural level”, as well as emphasising their efforts, “to make the university a safer, happier, and more welcoming place for all”, it would appear that the relevance of these goals do not extend to students who support Israel.
Even if we are to put aside the fact that a massacre did not indeed occur, one would think that the use of loaded terms in the protest’s description such as “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” would dissuade an organisation as prestigious as CUSU from partaking.
One would similarly think that an organisation so concerned with definitions and the role of identity would be careful regarding the definitions it associates itself with as well as not allow its own cause to be manipulated in a game of cheap identity politics.
While the intersectionality between all those fighting institutionalised racism and bigotry is understandable, a student union whose self-defined role is to make campus a place which is more inclusive, should not be endorsing hateful spectacles such as the one that took place last week on King’s Parade. Holding signs superimposing the future Palestinian state on the entire map of Israel, it appears that protesters were making demands made by only the most radical entities among the Palestinians, such as the recognised terrorist group Hamas, who do the same when calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.
Similarly troubling were comparisons being drawn at the rally between Israeli soldiers and Nazis, and the fact that CUSU did not consider how supporting such a campaign would make former Israeli soldiers on campus feel. If all this wasn’t enough to indicate the insidious intention of the protest organisers, hateful chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, overtly calling for the destruction of the state of Israel could be heard as well.
One of the first and most obvious steps to be taken by universities in such cases is the unequivocal affirmation that violent conduct and hateful means of expression are unacceptable forms of behaviour, irrespective of how strongly the participants feel about the issue at hand. An attendant policy should be put in place and enforced to punish any and all violent and hate filled activities. The UK PREVENT program is an example of this, working particularly to prevent the radicalisation of students. While often construed as an infringement on civil liberties, the program instructs universities to designate diversity officers to ensure that campuses employ neither the institutionalised silencing of dissenting opinions nor the arbitrary use of university regulations as a cudgel with which to assault particular students; this further establishes the coherence of policy across the board protecting students.
While this issue may appear trivial and limited to universities, it is representative of a problem that exists beyond the confines of campuses, namely that of intolerance. If we do not challenge, unequivocally condemn and punish all such activities in the very places in which the next generation of political, social and thought leaders is being educated, this sets a highly ominous trend for the future of society at large. At a time when hate crime, particularly of an anti-Semitic and Islamophobic nature, is very much on the rise, and as jingoistic, chauvinist motifs become ever more prevalent in political discourse, it is critical to address intolerance and in doing so exhibit our commitment to vigorous debate and the building of an inclusive society. This is a critical question to be answered if the health of our democracy and its hospitality to free thought and open dialogue is to be ensured.