Israel's obsession with Palestine repression in universities

Why Israel cares so much about repressing Palestine solidarity in Western universities
7 min read

Daniel Lindley

30 November, 2023
Following Israel’s recent onslaught on Gaza, students & academics in Western campuses have faced increasing repression for their solidarity with Palestine. This is a symptom of Israel's fears that it is losing younger support, argues Daniel Lindley.
The ELSC released a report in September detailing the adverse effects of adopting the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism, finding that it had resulted in the ‘cancellation of events’ on Palestine, writes Daniel Lindley. [GETTY]

Recent years have seen a consistent deterioration in academic freedom on the topic of Israel/Palestine in the UK and other Western countries. The European Legal Support Center (ELSC) released a report just this September detailing the adverse effects of adopting the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism, finding that it had resulted in the ‘cancellation of events’ on Palestine and/or Israel, as well as subjecting staff and students ‘investigations and, in some cases, disciplinary hearings’ for speaking about the issue. Israel’s latest onslaught against the Palestinians has only turbocharged this environment.

The first sign of an escalation was when students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) were suspended following a rally in solidarity with Palestinians on 9 October. Suspending students for political activity (or indeed, for anything) is extremely rare in British universities. SOAS management claim that the students were not suspended because of their views but because ‘event and venue protocols were not followed’. The institution has not provided any previous instances where some kind of bureaucratic oversight resulted in multiple suspensions or explained why the Palestine student society’s members who didn’t event attend the protest were given formal warnings.

It's worth noting how much of the opposition to criticism of Israel in universities has not been on the grounds that anything stated was factually inaccurate, or even directly accusing the speakers of bigotry (although of course implications of antisemitism are thrown around), but merely causing ‘division’ or ‘upset’.

A particularly strange example is the case of Stella Maris, the rector at St. Andrews University, who faced calls to apologise or resign for referring to Israel’s policies as ‘genocidal’ and ‘apartheid’. Her detractors accused her of ‘creating division and fostering hate’, and the university’s response was to acknowledge “distress and anger” caused to pro-Israel students by her statements. There appears to be some notion that the role of the rector is to be politically neutral so that they “represent all students”, although this standard was clearly not applied when the highly outspoken right-winger Andrew Neil held the position.

You’ll struggle to find anyone in the mainstream media making the simple case that sometimes at universities students will encounter people with ideas that they do not like, and this is good!

Specific to the UK, these indirect tactics which are more about mass bullying through the media should be understood as part of a general change of approach from UK pro-Israel activists.

A significant event in this history came in 2013, when a legal challenge by pro-Israel activist Ronnie Fraser against the University and Colleges Union (UCU) for supporting Palestine solidarity was humiliatingly quashed. Fraser accused the union of ‘institutional antisemitism’, but this was dismissed by the judge as “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means” and showed “worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression.” The tribunal also stated that support for Israel and/or Zionism was “not intrinsically a part of Jewishness” and accused prominent pro-Israel campaigners (such as the future Jewish Labour Movement head Jeremy Newark) of having given ‘untrue’ testimony in support of the case, described by one QC as ‘an act of epic folly’.

The lesson learned from this embarrassing case was that attempts to repress Palestine solidarity through accusations of antisemitism will not succeed if done in a venue where impartial professionals soberly examine the facts. Rather, we’ve seen a swing towards media-driven smear campaigns and intimidation of institutions such as universities.

That the Israeli government itself is involved in supporting these campaigns is openly discussed in the Israeli press. For instance Yediot Aharonot recently reported that the Israeli ‘Foreign and the Diaspora Affairs ministries have formulated an action plan aimed at inflicting economic and employment consequences’ in the hope that ‘students will struggle to find employment in the U.S. and will pay a significant economic price for their conduct.’ The idea reportedly is that if students chances of finding employment are reduced, that will bring down a university’s ranking, and thus incentivise university management to take action against pro-Palestine activism to avoid harming their rankings.


This is, of course, all described in terms of fighting “antisemitism.” But considering the only organisation named as threat is Students for Justice in Palestine, and examples of student behaviour they’re aiming to combat include “Pro-Palestinian demonstrations at Harvard” and a photo of a student holding a placard saying “Stop Bombing Gaza”, that this isn’t really about antisemitism barely requires explaining.

We’ve also seen repression of free speech on Palestine by donors threatening to withdraw funds to universities who do not take aggressively pro-Israel stances. This follows the Chair of the World Zionist Organisation calling for “Jewish donors” to stop funding academic institutions that “promote hated of Jews on their territory”, an odd formulation that again hints at this being about Israel rather than actual antisemitism. For example the hedge fund manager William Ackman has demanded that Harvard University publish membership lists of student Palestine solidarity groups to ensure he and other do not “inadvertently hire any of their members.” The Citadel CEO Kenneth Griffin, who donated $300 million to Harvard this year, has also demanded that the university “denounce its students for criticizing Israel” and has stated that his hedge fund would not hire “the head of a student group” who signed a letter criticising Israel.

These incidents illustrate the importance of publicly-funded education if academic institutions are to operate without the very wealthy effectively being able to purchase repression of speech and solidarity. The Times Higher Education has reported that US higher education institutions are now having an ‘unprecedented moment of reflection on how dependent it has become on the need to obey private funders.’

But detailing what’s been happening doesn’t quite answer the most important question, why does Israel and its supports care so much about repressing Palestine solidarity in Western universities?

A simplistic answer is that Israel is highly dependent on support from the United States to maintain its (very expensive) system of apartheid and oppression, and the main function of universities is to reproduce the ruling class. A small country with few natural resources like Israel could not afford a state-of-the-art air force with almost 700 warplanes without a much larger economy bankrolling it, and Israel is unlikely to find a replacement should US support decline.

Although support for Israel has increasingly become a political partisan issue between the left and right, the split by age has become far more drastic. A recent CNN poll showed that only 40% of Democrats under 35 thought supporting Israel “is in the national interests of this country”, and 52% said it wasn’t. These people will eventually become the ruling class of the nation, the make-up of Western governments increasingly consisting of people more aware of (which correlates strongly with being more sympathetic to) the Palestinian cause than Israel is a terrible scenario for Israel, which for almost all its existence has received strong ideological backing from the West that went beyond pure material interest.


Another aspect worth being aware of is the fear that young Jewish support for Israel is fizzling out. It’s not gone unnoticed that many of the large protests and solidarity actions in the UK, US and elsewhere have been organised by young Jewish people opposed to Israel’s apartheid regime. This fear was stated very outrightly by Adam Taub in the pro-Israel ‘Jewish News’, who reports with great sadness that: “I meet many young Jews and some of the smartest of them are attracted to anti-Zionist positions: they feel it is their responsibility as Jews to oppose the state of Israel as a colonial power that oppresses the Palestinians.” He also warns of dire consequences for Israel, “[i]f we do not wake up and take education of the next generation seriously.”

Of course, it is the struggling Palestinian people who pay the most severe price. For those of us living in relative safety who want to act in solidarity, mobilising to fight this campaign of suppression in our educational institutions is a small but important step.

Daniel Lindley is a trade union activist in the UK.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.