Whether the future leader is Truss or Sunak, student activists will defy Tory repression of Palestine solidarity
As the Conservative leadership contest nears its end, it is all too clear that whether Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss wins, this government intends to deepen its close relationship with Israel at the expense of Palestinians living under occupation and apartheid.
Both candidates have used the election period to advertise promises to “strengthen ties” with Israel, including threatening to move the British Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in an incredible dismissal of the Palestinian people’s rights which would reverse decades of British policy and lend legitimacy to the illegal Israeli occupation of the city.
This international policy stance - against Palestinian rights in favour of lucrative deals with Israel - is also reflected domestically. Both Sunak and Truss have explicitly committed to the proposed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill, which aims to severely impede the ability of public bodies to spend, invest and trade ethically in line with human rights.
''The utilisation of this contrived ‘culture war’ is particularly evident in the Conservatives’ attitude towards universities and students. From former education Minister Michelle Donelan labelling university students as “intolerant woke bullies” and threatening a bill to punish universities and Students’ Unions that allow students to protest against injustice, to MPs making clear that one of the key targets of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill is university divestment campaigns, this government has tried and tested the tactic of vilifying students to create public outrage.''
This anti-BDS legislation is yet to be formally tabled but has already faced criticism from a wide variety of trade unions, civil rights and climate justice groups. The bill’s opponents recognise that it is yet another part of the attempt to limit our ability to challenge the government and companies over war crimes, climate devastation, and other destructive practices, evident in recent legislation including the Policing Bill, the ‘Spy Cops’ Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill, and the Overseas Operations Bill.
Sunak and Truss have repeatedly couched these policy announcements in the language of the ‘culture war’, with Truss declaring that she will target the “woke culture […] that strays into antisemitism”, and Sunak labelling the divestment efforts of local government pensions schemes as a “pernicious practice”. Their tactic is clear: this leadership contest has platformed the manufactured spectre of a culture war to distract from the Conservatives’ increasingly draconian policies and the pressing context of the cost of living crisis.
The utilisation of this contrived ‘culture war’ is particularly evident in the Conservatives’ attitude towards universities and students. From former education Minister Michelle Donelan labelling university students as “intolerant woke bullies” and threatening a bill to punish universities and Students’ Unions that allow students to protest against injustice, to MPs making clear that one of the key targets of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill is university divestment campaigns, this government has tried and tested the tactic of vilifying students to create public outrage.
Using claims of suppressed freedom of speech, and conflating antisemitism with the advocacy for Palestinian rights, harms the fight against antisemitism by cynically attempting to divide it from other forms of anti-racism. It also serves to distract from the Conservatives’ real project here: that of maintaining Britain’s financial investments in Israel’s colonialism, and to that end, marginalising all popular support for the Palestinian people.
While Truss, Sunak and their ilk make new, improved deals that offer Israel yet more military exports (between 2015 and 2020, the UK government approved over £400 million worth of military technology and arms exports to Israel, and during this time Israel killed 796 Palestinians), the now-infamous term ‘woke’ is used to demonise all those who stand up for marginalised and oppressed people, whether that is by opposing settler-colonialism and apartheid in Israel or refusing to be drawn into a ‘debate’ that denies the existence and rights of trans people.
This escalated war on progressive campaigning on campuses comes in the context of an already shrinking space in universities. Years of the disastrous Prevent policy, which sees students as suspects, has laid the groundwork for more repression; in the past years, the government has explicitly threatened universities with funding cuts to push them into adopting the widely condemned IHRA definition of antisemitism.
As many legal experts have highlighted, this 39-word IHRA definition is not only too vague to effectively deal with antisemitism; its examples dangerously conflate legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Its use, therefore, has a ‘chilling effect’: it silences Palestinian voices in their attempt to describe the reality of their oppression, and it shuts down campaigns which hold universities or the government to account over their complicity with Israeli apartheid.
This has recently been writ large in the public media trial of the NUS’ new democratically elected President, Shaima Dallali, who dared to be involved in her Palestine Society while at university and then run for office at the NUS. Far from its professed concern for Jewish students, the real concern of the government and tabloid media in this case is clear: they could not risk an outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights in a position of power, representing and mobilising students. Particularly one who has also championed other progressives causes on campus for students, faculty, and staff alike.
The media attacks on Dallali have been utterly despicable—racist and Islamophobic in nature, and obviously designed to make an example of her in an attempt to prevent others from speaking up against injustice.
The Conservatives know that students have the power to enact real change and impact public perception. Students activism exposes and threatens the government’s close relationship with Israel and puts pressure on their institutions to take action that could jeopardise the government’s precious arms and trade deals.
Despite consistent attempts to weaken the student movement through division, the government has failed to make Palestine a ‘niche’ issue without mass support. There are active divestment campaigns in universities across the country and Palestinian flags are seen at every student demonstration, from UCU strikes to decolonisation rallies. This is because students understand Palestinian liberation as central to the liberation of oppressed peoples across the world, and, in turn, the ability to stand in solidarity with Palestine has become a symbol of student resistance.
As the academic year begins in the wake of the Conservative leadership conference, campus activists will need to be savvy and strategic in their work on progressive causes while navigating the government’s poisonous rhetoric, whether they are working on divestment campaigns for Palestinian rights and other antiracist struggles, on campaigns focused on demilitarising university spaces, on climate justice initiatives, or on supporting workers’ rights. The path forward is surely to recognise the government’s cynical ‘divide and conquer’ tactics, and to band together in wide coalitions to push back against repression on campus, in wider society, and around the world.
Stella Swain is the Youth and Student Campaigner at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).
Follow her on Twitter: @PscYouth
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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.