Madeleine Ferris

When Protests Lose Balance: Outcomes and Repercussions

In the UK, universities have been protesting the war against Hamas with hundreds arrested and cities overrun with protests. Recently, students have begun to follow in the footsteps of their American counterparts by occupying university buildings. At Goldsmiths University of London, students occupied the main library and at the University of Manchester, students set up an encampment demanding that the university divest from arms companies and academic programs connected to Israel.

Concerns regarding the possibility of violence as seen on American campuses across the US have been raised with David Maguire, the vice chancellor of University of East Anglia, who claimed in April that it is feasible that this could be replicated in the UK.

Demanding that armament sales cease to both warring militaries is a consistent stance to hold in opposition to violence. However, this position is only consistent if protesters advocate for arms sales to be cut off to Hamas as well. 

However, what is most revealing about these protests is the insistence on severing academic links with Israeli universities, and curtailing any access UK students have to joint programs or academic resources. It is unlikely that academic ties between universities, in the form of international programs and intellectual exchanges, bear any direct relationship to the Israeli war effort. Rather than attempting to end the war, it is more likely that this appeal is indicative of the anti-Zionist desire to divest from Israel as a nation. 

At York University, an April 17th statement by the faculty declared that support of Israel should be redefined as a form of racism, which further supports this theory. While presented as conscionable opposition to Israeli governmental politics, upon further examination, the statement was a clear attempt to delegitimise Jews living in the region. 

The statement claimed that the university’s pledge to fight racism cannot be actualised until they isolate and destroy the ‘Zionist settler colonial project.’ The use of this phrase to describe Israelis, demonstrates a hardline denial of Jewish indigenous links to Israel, and the right for Jews to return and live freely there. This is commonplace in anti-Zionist rhetoric. 

For a statement heavily referencing the importance of academic rigor and free speech, it is difficult to overlook the hypocrisy in demanding that those same rights be removed from Israel’s supporters, or anyone with peripheral connection to Israeli academia. In doing so, they voice the very same kind of discrimination they claim to reject.  

Considering that Hamas dragged Gazan civilians and Israel into this war, it is puzzling to see university students focus their ire solely on Israel. Israeli civilians continue to be held captive by Hamas, which is heavily funded by wealthy countries with ties to the UK and its universities.

 If these protests were truly about ending the war rather than a hollow pretext to call for Israel’s destruction, one would assume that at least some demands would be leveled at Hamas or countries like Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia who harbor their terrorist leaders and are a strong base of significant financial and military support.

For a genuine and just peace, protesters would include Hamas in their calls to end hostilities. Instead, many simplify this war into neat victim/aggressor distinctions, siding with the militarily weak underdog, which on October 7th enacted the worst violence against the Jewish people since the Holocaust. 

Whilst many of those attending these protests are simply campaigning for peace and an end to the suffering of so many, a loud sector of society has exposed their antisemitism, using this war as a means to deny Israel’s right to exist.

This stands in stark contrast to the response of multiple academics to sanctions on Russian universities after the invasion of Ukraine, (which unlike Israel’s war, has no moral or legal basis.) Academics strongly advocated to distinguish between the government and citizens of Russia. One must ask why independent Israeli scientists are undeserving of similar treatment and nuance?

Following the publication of the faculty’s document, York University promptly acquiesced to their demands. This “advocacy” fails to target Hamas, and will make little practical difference to Palestinian and Israeli suffering. The impact of its sinister undertones will only affect Jewish students and faculty.

The importance of holding Israeli policies accountable to the relevant international legal apparatus is self-evident, yet that is not being demanded here. These protesters are uninterested in advocating for the safety and wellbeing of Palestinians caught up in a vicious war. Calling for an end to arms sales to Israel, without requesting the same from Hamas, will not free Palestinians from their oppression or protect Israelis from terrorism.

A sincere advocation for peace would not focus on boycotting Israel as a nation state. Instead, it would amplify Israeli and Palestinian voices to advocate for a just peace and an end to war, instead of imposing western standards of war and peace onto two populations who deserve better.

About the Author
Madeleine was born in England and moved to Israel after completing her undergraduate degree at both King’s College London and University of Toronto. She is now studying for her Masters degree at the Hebrew University in Human Rights and Transitional Justice.