End Israel's Apartheid Occupation - Free Palestine protests in London. End Israel's Apartheid Occupation - Free Palestine protests in London. Source: Alisdare Hickson - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 2.0

Efforts to suppress the expression of solidarity with Palestine in UK universities are dangerous, but can and must be resisted, argues Lucia Pradella

In December 2023, Judith Butler published an article in Boston Review partially criticising their own critique of the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee’s statement claiming that ‘the apartheid regime is the only one to blame’ for the 7 October attacks. ‘When I offered my critique in the London Review of Books‘, they wrote, ‘I did so in the spirit of a conversation. I did not foresee how their viewpoint would be shut down, nor the extent of harassment and doxxing they would suffer.’ The crisis of academic freedom in the United States, Butler argued, ‘is as acute as any since the McCarthy years.’ Subsequent events at Harvard and elsewhere have but confirmed Butler’s analysis. But what is the situation in the United Kingdom? In the UK, many believe, things are not as bad as in the US. The power of donors is not as great, or is less visible, and universities preserve a degree of autonomy from the government and private interests. No vice-chancellors have been openly hounded by big donors or forced out for not sufficiently repressing pro-Palestine voices. But there is an important but: we’re not talking enough, or systematically enough, about the current crisis of academic freedom in the UK.

Can Palestinians rise up?

I say this as an academic and trade unionist who’s been involved in defending pro-Palestinian voices on campus. I followed closely the media witch-hunt of pro-Palestinian academics and students after 7 October; the letter by Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, calling on vice-chancellors to ramp up the use of Prevent and to prioritise the ‘welfare’ of Jewish students; Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s (failed) attempts to criminalise pro-Palestine protests and symbols, combined with threats by Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick (Braverman and Jenrick both subsequently left the government, but they are still campaigning to drag Britain rightwards). I followed with concern about the suspensions of academics for social- media posts and of pro-Palestine student activists in universities like SOAS and, more recently, my own King’s College London.

Despite its strong partnerships and investment links with Israel settler colonialism and apartheid, the UK Higher Education sector has presented itself as a neutral bystander, reducing the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and increased attacks across historical Palestine to an ‘Israel/Gaza conflict’ or a ‘humanitarian crisis’. In many cases, aligning with the Zionist narrative, management has even refused to mention the word Palestine. The politics of proscription has been prioritised over international law, with explicit threats to anyone expressing opinions that are supportive of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. All this, along with the embedding of student welfare support in the structures of Prevent’s ‘thought police’, has created a climate of fear and stifled debate on campuses.

This institutional framework intentionally blurs the – quite substantial – difference between supporting specific resistance groups and supporting the resistance of the colonised, with the goal of repressing support for the Palestinians’ struggle for self-determination. On top of this, Mayssoun Sukarieh explained in Mondoweiss that the Zionist lobby has also being playing a direct role in the repression of pro-Palestinian voices in universities.

On 12 October, University College London (UCL) suspended the UCL Marxist Student Society for refusing to remove posters calling for a ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Intifada Until Victory’. After the local branch of the Union of Academics and Professional Services Staff (UCU) also passed a motion calling for ‘Intifada Until Victory’ (along with other motions condemning any form of violence ) on 27 October, UCL Provost Dr Michael Spence directly intervened to condemn this motion, as if calling for a mass uprising meant inciting violence: ‘language such as this – he wrote – has no place on a university campus.’

Given that the Branch did not remove the motion from its website (owned by the University), in November, UCL censored the motion directly. Following the thrust of Gillian Keegan’s letter, the provost emphasised the need to support the welfare of Jewish students without even mentioning Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, or pro-Palestinian students. When a UCL alumna asked Dr Spence why UCL had failed to issue a statement to commemorate Palestinian poet and English literature professor Dr Refaat Alareer, assassinated by Israel on 7 December, Dr Spence replied that ‘given that UCL has such a huge number of distinguished alumni, we do not issue statements about their deaths.’ But it turns out that UCL alumni are not just numbers for the provost, whose attempt to silence support for Palestinian self-determination was also in response to a letter – organised by the Pinsker Centre (previously Pinsker Centre for Zionist Education) – sent by more than 500 alumni condemning ‘the appalling antisemitism on campus’ and asking for investigations into student and union leaders.

Similar attempts at intimidating students and academics calling for a mass uprising against imperialist occupation took place at Lancaster, Sussex, Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. In Oxford, under pressure from the right-wing press, university management and the Oxford Israeli Society, the UCU Branch committee cancelled the emergency general meeting scheduled for 26 October that was going to discuss the ‘Intifada Until Victory’ motion.

In the words of Professor Rashid Khalidi in an open letter to Columbia University administration (in response to an email sent by deans on 21 December), universities like Oxford and UCL have ‘thus unilaterally decided that no one should rise up [the actual meaning of ‘intifada’] against 56 years of illegal military occupation; that Palestine should remain unfree from the river to the sea; and that the oppressed should take permission from the oppressor as to the means to relieve their oppression.’ That’s because ‘hearing otherwise is “antisemitic and deeply hurtful to some”.’ But one difference between Columbia and UCL and Oxford is that no high-profile open letters were written to protest UCL’s and Oxford’s decision to ban the word Intifada from campus. No decolonial scholars have yet taken up the case, and, despite requests, the national UCU has not intervened.

This has been the case despite the growth of the pro-Palestinian movement and even though, at the end of October, thousands of academics wrote to the UKRI (the state research funding body) denouncing the conflation of support for Palestinian ‘political resistance’ with support for Hamas: a conflation, the letter states, that ‘serves to undermine popular and growing opposition to Israel’s bombardment and policies of siege against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.’ Many had hoped that this mobilisation would indeed lead ‘the whole British academic community to take a stand against the UK government’s attack on academic freedom and equality, and to all forms of intimidation aimed at punishing individuals for showing solidarity with Palestinians.’ But so far, this has not been the case.

The Exposed campaign launched by the current UCU leadership (also partly to divert attention from the failure of the national ballot for industrial action on pay and conditions) does not focus on defending pro-Palestine voices, but academic freedom in general, on a case-by-case and branch-by-branch basis. Despite the union’s strong tradition of pro-Palestine solidarity and BDS policies, the Exposed campaign is not rooted in an attempt to disrupt the investment links and partnerships between the UK HE sector and the state of Israel. Only at the beginning of December, under pressure from branches, did the UCU leadership demand the USS pension fund divest from companies profiting from environmental destruction and genocide in Gaza, but without building this demand on members’ mobilisation or linking it to the campaign to defend pro-Palestine voices.

Can workers oppose the war?

More than five years of industrial action, which resulted in a historic victory to defend the academic pensions fund USS, but a defeat on pay and conditions, have radicalised the membership. As the UCU’s 2023 national Congress brought to the surface, however, the union has still a significant democratic deficit and is riddled with divisions. In Glasgow last May, Congress censured General Secretary Dr Jo Grady for her undemocratic conduct during the pay and conditions dispute, and was the first trade union congress in the UK to oppose both Russian imperialism and the UK sending weapons to and fuelling further escalation in Ukraine. Majority support for the now notorious Motion 5 was narrow, but came after intense and comradely debate. The decision was followed by a media witch-hunt initiated by an anonymous, Zionist Twitter account and amplified by ex-leftist turncoat and pro-Nato warmonger Paul Mason. Notoriously very concerned about her Twitter image, and with the support of the right within the UCU, Dr Grady publicly expressed her disagreement with the decision of the union’s sovereign body and made it clear she would in fact not implement the anti-war policy.

Instead of joining ranks against yet another undemocratic move by the GS, the left of the Union split. Former UCU President and candidate for General Secretary, Vicky Blake, set up a petition that, while formally acknowledging the legitimacy of Motion 5 and ‘the right to criticise governments and military alliances such as NATO’, stated that ‘to actively call for the disarming of the victims of imperialist aggression who are fighting for their existence as a people following invasion by another nation’s armed forces is to disregard the immediate threat that the people of Ukraine face and denies their right to defend themselves against Putin’s aggression. True solidarity requires us to centre the people of Ukraine, to foreground their right to self-determination. Any resolution to the war must be acceptable to them.’

Motion 5 was a setback to Blake’s attempt to shift the UCU position towards a pro-imperialist stance. The year before, in April 2022, despite UCU’s policy opposing Nato expansion in eastern Europe, Blake had brought the UCU national banner and chaired the final rally at a Ukraine Solidarity Campaign demonstration promoted by Paul Mason that tried to rally the main UK trade unions behind calls for increasing the UK supply of weapons to Ukraine and for regime change in Russia. Even if the demonstration was attended by little more than 200 people, it was led by a series of trade union leaders like PCS union assistant general secretary, John Moloney. In line with Mason’s call on the Western left to get ready for the war on China, in June 2023, Vicky Blake took part in the launch of a united China solidarity campaign organised by the Zionist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty with the main goal of opposing Beijing’s imperialism.

It would be a mistake to personalise or underestimate this alternative vision of trade union politics. Grady’s refusal to implement the Congress anti-war motion and her lacklustre support for the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, in fact, reflect a (contested) process of bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of the union in the context of the hegemonic crisis of Western imperialism and the rise in militarism and war-time austerity. In September 2023, the TUC Congress passed a motion that, rightly, denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but fully endorsed the war policies of Nato, the US, the UK, and other European powers in Ukraine. Thanks to campaigning by Stop the War Coalition, an original commitment to increased military aid was removed in the amended version. Proposed and seconded by the GMB and Aslef, the motion was supported by all the main unions except for the Fire Brigades Union and BFAWU bakers’ union, who opposed it. Against its own policy, the UCU abstained, and so did the RMT and the NEU. By lining up behind or failing to oppose British imperialism, the leaderships of the main trade unions revealed one of the reasons why the strike wave against the cost-of-living crisis failed to challenge the Tories’ policy of cuts and wage restraint. On Twitter/X Paul Mason cheered the TUC’s ‘decisive rejection of pro-Kremlin and pacifist politics’, thanking Ukraine Solidarity Campaign for helping make this happen.

A collision with reality

The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once wrote that time in Gaza ‘does not compel people to cool contemplation, but rather to explosion and a collision with reality.’ The growth of a diverse, global movement against Israel’s genocidal war on Palestinians in Gaza and South Africa’s charges of genocide at the ICJ (and of US-UK complicity) are challenging the pro-imperialist alignment of the trade union leadership in Britain – a complicity that has deep historical roots. Despite the witch-hunt, since October, we have witnessed a resurgence of pro-Palestinian activism on campuses. UCU branches have passed solidarity motions and taken part in demonstrations and local actions demanding that university management join the growing voices demanding a ceasefire and an end to the occupation; end complicity in genocide; divest from companies involved in occupation; rescind partnerships with Israeli universities that work with the military and support practices and technologies of apartheid. Activists have taken part in direct actions against arms companies within growing international trade-union networks targeting the manufacturing and supply of weapons to Israel.

It’s also because of this movement that the UCU leadership has spoken at marches, raised (albeit limited) demands for USS divestment, and supported student walkouts. The 12 January march against Western attacks on Palestine and Yemen has seen the biggest and liveliest trade union bloc so far, along with attempts to develop a rank-and-file coordination of UCU and university workers. The 7 February workplace day of action, the biggest so far, has shown that this movement is increasingly rooted in the workplaces.

In this context, Paul Mason’s support for the bombing of Yemen and targeting of Barnaby Raine, one of the most prominent Jewish voices for peace in the UK, did not make him many friends. The growth of the Palestine solidarity movement is also creating a more favourable ground to develop anti-imperialist politics on campuses. The case of Leeds UCU is emblematic. In October, a motion calling for the dismantlement of Israel’s apartheid system and supporting Palestinians’ right to resist was defeated by a 60/40 majority against. As a member of Leeds UCU, Vicky Blake spoke in favour of an apparently more ‘even handed’ and ‘fair’ motion about the ‘Israel/Palestine emergency’ urging members ‘to offer humanitarian support’ to a group of charities involved in Israel/Palestine. Behind the language of anti-violence and ‘care for the University of Leeds UCU community’, the motion encouraged members to lend support to openly Zionist groups like Voices for Hostages, which features among its signatories the likes of Gal Gadot. But the strength of pro-Palestine feelings among the members meant that the Branch took the banner to pro-Palestine demonstrations and, in November, passed a motion supporting BDS. Interestingly, in her manifesto, Blake embraced demands for a ceasefire that were absent in the October motion. Instead of supporting Palestinian trade unions’ demands for BDS and for mass action against the research, production, and supply of weapons to Israel, however, Vicky Blake endorsed liberal Zionist group Standing Together: a  group that the BDS movement has recently defined as an ‘Israel normalisation organisation’ that seeks to normalise Israel’s genocide in Gaza and to ‘side-track urgently needed  effective action to stop Israel’s ongoing genocide and dismantle its apartheid regime’.

The main point I want to make in conclusion is that university workers are currently facing multiple threats to their academic freedom, including from forces within their own union and the trade unions more broadly. In this context, the growth and direction of the Palestine solidarity movement will make a difference. Israel’s relentless genocidal violence and the US and UK’s attempt to repress any form of resistance against it, including the Yemeni blockade of ships linked to Israel, will push more and more workers to understand that the only way the colonised can free themselves is by rising up, without asking for permission from their oppressor as to the means to relieve their oppression. And workers may realise that the steadfast struggle of the Palestinians is linked to our own struggles and demands. It is actually showing the way to our freedom too.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

Tagged under: