Home News UK universities have dealt with the protests in different ways. Will it...

UK universities have dealt with the protests in different ways. Will it pay off?


Palestinian flags fluttered in the breeze above two neat rows of orange and green tents at Cambridge University on Thursday as students read, talked and played chess in a small camp to protest the war in Gaza.

There are no police in sight and if they show up there is not much for them to do unless they want to join a wellness circle or a kite making workshop.

Pro-Palestinian camps have spread to 15 universities across the UK in recent days, but there are no signs yet of the violent confrontations that have rocked US campuses.

This is partly because university authorities here have taken a more relaxed approach, pointing out the importance of protecting free speech, even if the administration isn’t entirely thrilled About the protests.It may also reflect the less polarized debate within the UK, in which opinion polls show Most people think Israel should declare a ceasefire.

At Oxford, the atmosphere was more campground than confrontational, with about 50 tents pitched on the prominent green lawn outside the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Despite the sunny weather, the board-covered grass was muddy in places when authorities turned on the sprinklers as an unfriendly greeting to campers (the sprinklers were stopped Wednesday after discussions between the school and students).

Tables are stocked with sunscreen, water, juice and hot drinks, and a whiteboard lists a list of needs: cups, spoons and paper plates.

“People keep saying, ‘It’s a festival and they’re having a lot of fun,'” said Kendall Gardner, an American graduate student and protester. She strongly dismissed the idea: “It’s very difficult, there’s a lot of hostility directed at us every moment; we’re running a micro-town and it’s not fun.”

Ms. Gardner, 26, from Fishers, Indiana, went viral in a video video interview This week, in partnership with Al Jazeera, explains why Oxford University students are demanding the university divest itself of companies with links to the Israeli military. The interview has been viewed 15 million times on social media platform X.

She said she was motivated in part by her Jewish heritage and pointed to what she called the genocide in Gaza. “My Jewish faith is a big part of why I became an activist,” she said. “For someone to tell you, ‘This will keep you safe’ – a dead baby – that’s indescribable, and I’m here to say, ‘No, that’s completely wrong.'”

Later in the afternoon, Oxford students briefly chanted “From river to sea, Palestine will be free.” before discussing how to balance study and protest, a vigil to commemorate Gaza’s victims, and some poetry readings. The language is seen by some supporters of Israel as a rallying cry for the country’s annihilation and is focused on by groups such as the Jewish Students Union, which says it represents 9,000 Jewish students in the UK and Ireland.

The group’s chairman, Edward Isaacs, said this week that anti-Semitism in UK universities had reached an “all-time high” and called on university leaders to “take swift and decisive action to protect Jewish life on campus”.

The UK’s Conservative Prime Minister echoed these concerns to some extent, Rishi Sunak, convening leaders Representatives from several universities traveled to Downing Street on Thursday to discuss ways to tackle anti-Semitism.

Jewish students who oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza are themselves targets, Ms. Gardner said. “There was a lot of harassment against anti-Zionist Jewish students, calling them Nazis,” she said. “I’ve always understood that people said to me, ‘You’re not a real Jew, you’re a fake Jew.'”

Rosy Wilson, 19, from Manchester in northern England, studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University. She said she felt reassured by the number of Jewish students at the camp who “felt like it was a safe place.”

Ms Wilson, who has a copy of the philosopher Hegel’s work in her tent, described the camp’s activities of learning, discussion and action as “bittersweet”. “I’m really happy that, while protesting something terrible, we were able to create a space that felt like a vision of a better world,” she said. “But I don’t think we should get so caught up in this vision that we forget why we’re here in the first place.”

Some experts have warned it is too early to tell whether the UK will avoid the violence and arrests seen on some US campuses.

“I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen here,” said Feyzi Ismail, a lecturer in global policy and activism at Goldsmiths, University of London, where protests also took place. “It depends on how the government sees it, how big of a threat they think the camps are, how long they last and how they evolve.”

University authorities, Dr. Ismail said, “are in a difficult position: the more they suppress, the worse this phenomenon gets, and I think university leaders are well aware of that.”

In the UK, the focus of pro-Palestinian demonstrators so far has been on large public marches, including those regularly seen in London, rather than on campuses.

Sally Mapstone, president of Universities UK, which represents universities, said on Thursday that university officials “may need to take action” if protests disrupt campus life.

Some analysts believe this could happen if student behavior becomes more radical or if the protesters themselves become targeted by those who oppose them. at UCLA.

Students said they believed they had not been expelled from the camp, partly because British police tactics were less confrontational than in the United States and partly because university leaders wanted to avoid inflaming the situation.

At the Oxford protest, students received “de-escalation training” and several police officers arrived and walked around the camp each day, although participants were urged not to talk to them.

Amytess Girgis, a 24-year-old Oxford University graduate student from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said that British police are “far less militarized than those in the United States; the way American police are trained and armed is not conducive to de-escalation.” She added She said she believed British authorities might view what happened in the United States as a warning about police intervention.

Oxford University said in a statement that it respects “the right to freedom of expression in the form of peaceful protest,” adding, “We ask that all those involved do so with respect, courtesy and empathy.”

Those supporting the protests include more than 300 academic staff at the University of Cambridge, who have signed an open letter Solidarity.

“I do think the students are well-intentioned and peaceful,” said Chana Morgenstern, an associate professor of postcolonial and Middle Eastern literature at the University of Cambridge and an Israeli citizen. “They’re also very willing to talk to people who disagree with their views. I’ve seen Jewish students on the faculty who are less progressive come in and talk to students, so I thought this might be an opportunity to have an open dialogue.”

In Cambridge, tourists cruised on punts on the River Cam not far from the student protests, and so far the camp has caused little disruption.

Abbie Da Re, a tourist from Bury St Edmunds, east Cambridge, said: “It must be peaceful there,” when asked about the campsite 100 meters away. “I’ve never heard of it at all. “

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