The Qatari-owned website Al Araby proudly proclaimed that “SOAS becomes the first UK university to boycott Israel”.
This was patently untrue. It was not “SOAS” the institution that voted – not the governing body, not the administration, not even formally the lecturers’ union, but an invented “SOAS community”. Anyone could vote who wanted to – including the SOAS cleaners and security guards.
The results of the student-led BDS referendum by this “SOAS community” demonstrated that 74 per cent of students did not vote for the motion- and this stretches to 86 per cent if the distance-learning students are included.
SOAS is unusual in London colleges in that its first-class programmes rightly attract many students from the Arab and Islamic worlds – and they would understandably vote for BDS.
It is patently untrue that the school has backed a boycott
On the other hand, the administration itself is neither pro-nor anti-Israel, but strongly defends freedom of expression and the right to a different narrative. When there were calls to ban a series of lectures by Tel Aviv University academics, which coincided with Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the SOAS administration steadfastedly refused to capitulate.
While Israel is certainly not the flavour of the month at SOAS, the institution is also one of the leaders in Israel studies in this country and is the headquarters of the European Association of Israel Studies.
Attending SOAS forces Jewish students to examine their Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. They emerge stronger and better informed than their elders and peers. Many SOAS students leave to work for Jewish and Israeli organisations, including the Zionist Federation and the Israel Embassy.
Even so, selective outrage about the Israeli presence on the West Bank has instigated saturation coverage by the SOAS unions for many years. The local lecturers’ union was formerly a stronghold of the far left Socialist Workers Party. The SWP founder, Yigael Gluckstein, opposed conscription into the British Army to fight Nazism in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s. His approach followed the Trotskyist line that World War II was a conflict between two rival imperialisms – one as bad as the other.
Such convoluted thinking has characterised other campaigns. It is therefore not surprising that there has been union silence at SOAS on the Charlie Hebdo killings as well as the Syrian tragedy.
The referendum organisers’ congratulatory self-deception at the results masks the inability of the BDS movement to make a breakthrough in changing the political reality in Israel.
Successive right-wing governments are elected. Periodic conflicts with the Islamists continue. The settlement drive moves forward. And BDS advocates preach the same mantra.
BDS has been very successful in attracting celebrities to its standard who bemoan the Palestinian plight. But public relations is not public reality. It entrenches positions and reinforces the politics of stagnation that is debilitating for Israeli and Palestinian alike.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS. His book The Rise of the Israeli Right will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year