LONDON – Following reports of Jewish students fearing intimidation after last week’s unofficial referendum calling for the London University campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies to end all ties with Israeli academic institutions, the director of the school said Thursday that he will investigate and take appropriate action as soon as possible.
Paul Webley told The Jerusalem Post that SOAS’s mission demands “an atmosphere of open inquiry, mutual tolerance and intellectual freedom. We will not tolerate behavior or activities that might compromise this.”
Having been briefed by SOAS Jewish Society President Moselle Paz Solis and some of her colleagues on Wednesday during which he learned of the strained and at times intimidating atmosphere on the campus since the anti-Israel resolution was passed, he expressed his extreme sorrow at hearing of their negative experiences on campus over the past fortnight “I urge any student who has experienced intimidation or abuse to register a formal complaint so that we can set an investigation in motion and offer appropriate support and mitigation as soon as possible,” he said.
A SOAS spokesman added that his meeting with Paz Solis and other students had been “very constructive and positive.”
According to reports, the atmosphere for Jewish and pro-Israel students started seriously deteriorating in January as the SOAS students’ union in cooperation with the BDS movement and the university’s Palestinian Society made preparations for Israel Apartheid Week, which was held in the last week of February.
It coincided with the referendum demanding SOAS cut all its relations with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which the university authorities dismissed as just an opinion poll.
Of those voting, the majority were clearly in favor of a boycotts policy – 1,283 students voting for a boycott, and 425 against (a 75 percent to 25% split), while of the 300 participating academics, 182 supported the BDS motion with 123 opposing, representing a much closer 60% to 40% divide. But critics of the vote, including the SOAS, administration made clear the vote had no real meaning as most of their 8,500 students had not participated in the poll; only 14% had bothered to vote.
But for Jewish students on the campus, the atmosphere soured considerably during the Apartheid Week, especially as the five-day ballot was being conducted. Those who participated in a “say no to BDS” meeting last Wednesday and others who actively canvassed for a “no” vote felt especially vulnerable. Since the results were published last weekend the number of incidents started mounting and several Jewish students expressed fear of even walking around the campus to attend lectures.
One Jewish undergraduate reportedly was told “why don’t you and your family f**k off to Israel.” Others were reluctant to go to the students’ common room fearing verbal abuse, while one undergraduate revealed he could not attend his lectures as he felt too scared. Even going to the union cafeteria to buy kosher sandwiches proved to be problematic for some, and the J Soc president disclosed she preferred to wait till she got home to eat rather than risk intimidation as she bought something to eat.
Paz Solis and economics undergraduate Avrahum Sanger had led the fightback against the BDS ballot, organizing a pro-Israel meeting during Israel Apartheid Week.
But they were subjected to a number of abusive and intimidatory comments.
Recalling the intimidation they felt as they left their meeting, Sanger said: “The ‘yes’ campaigners were waiting for us outside and they had their cameras out and they were trying to provoke people.” After that, he said he just “couldn’t go in” on the following morning.
“I decided I wasn’t going to my lecture and tutorial since I felt intimidated to show my face on campus,” he said, adding, “It is impossible to win this campaign. As soon as you speak up and give an opposing view to what the union holds, you are isolated and treated with hostility,” he was quoted as telling the Jewish Chronicle.
With BDS literature and pro-boycott posters covering many of the union facilities’ walls, and anti-Israel pamphlets liberally displayed on coffee tables, a stall urging support for the BDS campaign had a large banner stating “SOAS sets the precedent, vote yes BDS referendum.”
Paz Solis said she dared not go into the union’s common room as it was full of their propaganda. “You don’t know who you are going to encounter or if they are going to start having a go at you. They are very confrontational and in your face. You just don’t feel comfortable.” she told the JC.
Similar concerns were aired by second-year student Spencer Lauffer, who told the JC that at the end of a union meeting he thought he was going to get beaten up. “They were discussing BDS. I walked out with the camera on my phone switched on because I thought I was going to get punched in the face and I would be able to record it.”
He added, “It was very hostile.
One of the speakers had ranted about Israel not having the right to exist and there was a hostile environment in the meeting. We were around five people up against 40 to 50.” And he concluded by describing how since the BDS campaign he had been avoiding campus. “I used to go to the union bar, but I’ve just been going in for lectures and tutorials and then straight back home.”
However, SOAS Student Union co-presidents Kabir Joshi, David Suber and Georgie Robertson firmly rejected the Jewish students’ reports.
Asked about reports of intimidation against Jewish students, they asserted, “To our knowledge, this is not the case. All debates and communications about the referendum were fairly balanced and the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns were given equal space to campaign,” before claiming that “The union facilitated a safe and inclusive environment in which this important topic could be debated, and encouraged all students to engage and vote.”
In reply to questions from the Post they emphasized that their union has a “zero tolerance stance on bullying, harassment and discrimination” and that they encouraged all students who have experienced any aspects of the problems to report it to the union via their complaints procedure “so that any allegations can be investigated and appropriate action taken.”
“Feeling intimidated is in the eye of the beholder. We need evidence in order to take action. We need to distinguish between being offended and intimidated,” they added.
Zionist Federation Chairman Paul Charney told the Post, “At a time when the ongoing crisis of the Arab Spring is re-writing the history of the Middle East, it’s disheartening to see illiberal dogma still prevails at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I’d expect students to critically challenge the worst prejudices of the region – not swallow them wholesale.”
The union officials insisted that the students who had made accusations to the press had not made any formal complaints to the union.
They then accused the JC’s coverage of being “extremely biased and one-sided,” and asked for the Post to cover both sides of the story, by quoting from an 800-word statement they had provided.
They also maintained that there were many Jewish students who were pro-boycott, and some of whom had even created a “Jews for the Boycott” society but provided no evidence in the form of names or numbers.
It is understood that both Paz Solis and Sanger are now considering taking legal action against the union.