Students, staff at UK university vote to ban contact with Israeli institutions

Result not binding, says administration of School of Oriental and African Studies.

Boycott Israel sign (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boycott Israel sign
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LONDON – Students and staff at the School of Oriental and African Studies – one of the UK’s top universities – voted, in a week of balloting, to boycott contacts with all Israeli academic institutions in line with the BDS campaign.
The results announced late Friday evening led to partying on the central London campus and a request to the university authorities to sever their links with Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
The ballot had been organized by the Students’ Union on advice from the BDS movement as part of Israel Apartheid Week, and encompassed not only students but also any academics and non-teaching staff who wished to participate.
In all three groupings, the results were in favor of a boycott – 1,283 students voting for a boycott, with just 425 against, a 75 to 25 percent split.
Among the 300 participating academics, the margin of victory was significantly smaller; they voted 60% to 40% to support the proposal, while 91% of the 40 plus support staff who voted, such as the SOAS cleaners, favored the BDS line.
But senior SOAS academic Colin Shindler, the UK’s first Israel studies professor, told The Jerusalem Post that the vast majority of SOAS’s students did not participate in the vote, so 74% of on-campus students did not support the BDS motion, a figure which rises to 86% if those studying overseas are included. The university has more than 8,500 students and a teaching staff in excess of 330.
Shindler emphasized that the BDS movement has failed to make any impact on the politics of the Jewish state despite its ongoing self-congratulation.
While its supporters may consider their campaign as “intellectually satisfying,” he regards it as “politically daft,” he said.
Moselle Paz Solis, president of the SOAS Jewish Society, described the vote as “divisive” and “discriminatory” and warned it would lead to a deterioration of relations between Israeli and Jewish students and other groups. She said they intended to take their concerns to SOAS Director Paul Webley. “He has a duty of care to foster good relations between different religious and ethnic groups – this referendum does the opposite,” she said.
A spokesman for the Fair Play Campaign told the Post the organization, which the Jewish community established to combat BDS and associated activity, was disappointed but not surprised at the result at one of the most anti-Israeli campuses in the UK.
The referendum, he added, was a biased process run by a Students’ Union that had already decided it would boycott Israel no matter what the result, and he noted that Jewish students and opponents of boycotts fought hard to defeat it.
“SOAS should be proud of its connection to a fine academic institution like Hebrew University and the opportunities this has afforded many SOAS students to enrich their understanding of the Middle East through study in Israel. We look now to the management of SOAS to guarantee that students of Hebrew at SOAS will still have the opportunity to study at Hebrew U as a part of their courses,” the Fair Play Campaign spokesman said.
A SOAS administration official commented that while the poll has been described as a “referendum” by the Students’ Union, SOAS itself had no involvement in it nor had it endorsed the ballot. The official emphasized that not only was the Students’ Union a completely independent organization but that fewer than 30% of the SOAS community had participated in the vote. Nor had details had been provided in advance as to what would constitute the necessary number of participants for a decision to be valid.
The official continued, “As highlighted in the Students’ Union’s own correspondence, the school has no legal obligation to act on the result of this vote,” adding that SOAS was committed to maintaining a neutral platform and ensuring that all members of its diverse community were free to express their opinions in a mutually respectful and collegial environment.
“This can only be conducted effectively in an atmosphere of open inquiry, mutual tolerance and intellectual freedom,” the official said.