Clear message

Encamping against genocide

Yassamine Mather reports from the city of dreaming spires and student protest

On May 5, Oxford University students - organised by the newly founded Oxford Action for Palestine (OA4P) - established an encampment in front of the Pitt Rivers Museum, in coordination with a similar protest in Cambridge.

Student demands on the university primarily relate to assets and investments. They are asking for disclosure and a divestiture of all holdings in arms and other companies “complicit in Israeli genocide, apartheid and occupation of Palestine”.

They also demand that the university and its subsidiaries end all banking with Barclays and agree to end institutional relationships with Israeli universities. This would involve the ending of exchange programmes, joint projects and conferences. Students also demand that the university “end research, career and procurement partnerships with companies and institutions that are complicit in Israeli genocide, apartheid or occupation”.

It should be added that Oxford University Hospitals - one of the largest NHS teaching trusts - has a long history of supporting Medical Aid for Palestinians, while its doctors and nurses often spent weeks in Gaza hospitals that are now part of the rubble.

The protest started with the support of 60 members of staff who wrote:

As members of faculty and staff of the University of Oxford, we stand firmly in support of the members of the university community, who have begun an encampment outside the Pitt Rivers Museum to demand that the university divest from Israel’s genocide in Gaza, as well as from Israel’s ongoing apartheid regime against Palestinians and its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Our students have demanded that the university call for an unconditional and immediate ceasefire, condemn the destruction of all of Gaza’s universities by Israel’s bombardment in the last six months, and commit concrete resources both to support Palestinian scholars’ education and to rebuild Gaza’s destroyed institutions of higher education.

By this week over 500 members of the faculty and its staff had signed this support and a new petition for Oxford alumni started.

I personally visit the camp most days and it is well organised - a very peaceful, internationalist environment. From Chinese Americans to African-American US students, white British, European and American students to Sikhs and Middle Eastern students. Many people drop by to bring food and drinks for the students, while vehicles passing on the adjacent road honk their horns in support.

The media tent is named after Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by the Israeli military, while the library is named after Dr Refaat Alareer - a Palestinian writer, poet and academic killed in December 2023 by an Israeli air strike.

The camp has a well organised inventory, with a timetable of meetings and other events available on Instagram (@oxact4pal) that make good use of secure means of contacting students and staff who are actively supporting the action by giving moral and practical help.

Last week around 500 demonstrators attended a vigil held just outside the encampment. It was a vigil in solidarity with the healthcare and education workers of Gaza, whose workplaces have been destroyed by Israeli bombardment. During the vigil speakers, in scrubs, read out the names of the healthcare workers killed as a result of Israeli bombings.

In various emails sent to staff, university authorities emphasise this is a peaceful occupation. However, this has not stopped the rightwing press going on about how the action poses a ‘threat to Jewish students’! Oxford Israel Society’s statement tells us they are disappointed with staff and students, who “have chosen to mimic pro-Palestine encampments at US universities”, which, according to their statement, “have already led to violence and anti-Semitism there”. No mention of who inflicted the violence, no mention of the hundreds of Jewish students and staff who are part of this movement in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

The statement from Oxford Israel Society ends by “calling upon the university to reject all the protestors’ and petitioners’ demands” and expressing confidence that the university authorities will ensure that “anti-Semitism is swiftly and sharply addressed”!

In direct contrast to this, Oxford Jewish Students for Justice (JSJ) have issued a statement in solidarity with Oxford Action for Palestine, saying they “fully support the encampment’s struggle” and “call for the university to accept their demands in full”.

The only violence so far has come from rightwing thugs. According to a report posted by one the students,

On the evening of May 11, a group of six men arrived at the encampment, shouting abusive and threatening remarks at the protestors - including “Terrorist!” and “I’ll fucking kill you!” They also accused a Jewish student in the encampment of being a “fake Jew”, according to video footage available on Instagram (@madeleine_observes). The group of men also forcefully pushed several encampment members trying to block their advance.

Last week, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, speaking on MSNBC TV, claimed the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protest movements that are active in American colleges were

misinformed by propaganda on social media and in the classroom ... I have had many conversations with a lot of young people over the last many months. They don’t know very much at all about the history of the Middle East or frankly about history in many areas of the world, including in our own country.

Nothing could be further from the truth - both regarding the US protestors, and also the students I have talked to in the Oxford encampment. What Clinton and others fail to understand is that history and social sciences students have been told repeatedly that the period of colonialism is over - we are in the post-colonial era. One history student in Oxford explained it well: “As a history student, I could no longer sit idly, reading about past atrocities, with so many occurring before my eyes. We won’t be silent.”

The first statement put out jointly by Oxford and Cambridge students tells us:

The wealth and prestige of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge stem directly from their role in the British empire and its disastrous colonial legacies - including the Oxford and Cambridge men who authored the Balfour Declaration in 1917, ceding Palestinian land to the Zionist project.

In 2024, these universities may claim to be confronting their role in historic colonial violence - but their words ring hollow, while they lend financial and moral support to Israel’s genocide, occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Maybe it is Hillary Clinton - who during her time as secretary of state was busy wiping out emails about her role in Middle Eastern affairs, including Libya - who failed to read much about the history of the region.

An Iranian British student from the group, Oxford Students and Staff against Repression in Iran, told me:

Oxford, as an institution, is directly implicated in the ongoing genocide: it currently has investments in arms companies that deal with Israel, such as Raytheon, and legitimises the Israeli regime through exchange agreements with Israeli universities.

As students who both pay tuition fees to this university and produce knowledge in its name, it is our moral imperative to speak against these university policies and to advocate for change. For if we do not, and go about our day without acknowledging these truths, then we too are complicit. Occupying a piece of the university’s land is our way of showing that - though we all attend a university that accepts and participates in perpetrating injustices - we do not accept these and demand that the university acknowledge its complicity in the crimes against the people of Gaza.

Further, we must acknowledge that Israel is a colonial creation, and the minds behind British colonialism came from institutions like Oxford. For example, Alfred Milner, one of the architects of the Balfour Declaration, studied at Balliol College. As we know, the Balfour Declaration promised Palestinian land to the Zionist movement and took the right of self-determination away from Palestinians - a right that would become enshrined into international law within the framework of the United Nations.

The university must know that the age of colonialism is over and that it is dealing with students who will not stand for its support of genocide.

Finally, our encampment is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Gazan martyrs. Every night, we hold a vigil to honour the victims. Despite the fact that the genocide has been continuing for seven months, we remain steadfast in ensuring that the martyrs are never forgotten. And, in this way, we will not let the university forget its complicity in their deaths.