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Sussex Uni Boycott Israeli Goods

In an unprecedented development for the Palestine solidarity movement in the UK, last week the student union at Sussex University in Brighton ‘yes’ to boycotting Israeli goods. The referendum saw high levels of participation, with the vote tally coming in at 526 votes in favour of a boycott, and 450 against.

University rules meant that campaigning was restricted to a few days immediately preceding the referendum, which was carried out using an online voting system. Both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns actively pushed their positions with the student population – those opposing the boycott move adopted the slogan ‘Build bridges not boycotts’.

The referendum result was by a leading Palestinian activist in Bil’in, a West Bank village resisting Israel’s Wall with years of creative protests. Iyad Burnat described the boycott as “remarkable”, and expressed the hope of the village’s ‘Popular Committee’ that “even more people all around the world will follow by our example so that we can put an end to the Israeli occupation and dismantle the apartheid wall”. Norman Finkelstein, the high-profile author and scholar, also the vote for a boycott, calling it a “victory” for “truth and justice”.

The successful campaign for boycotting Israeli goods comes after a couple of years of steps taken by Sussex University students in solidarity with the Palestinians. In 2007, the student union was twinned to a Palestinian university after a referendum, which led to delegations of students travelling both ways. Campaigners note that it was the Palestinian students who first suggested a boycott.

In 2008, a motion was passed at a Sussex Student Union AGM supporting the boycott of Carmel Agrexco, an Israeli company that trades in produce grown in illegal settlements in the West Bank. Then in January of this year, a lecture hall was occupied by students for a week, as part of a wave of protests across UK against Israel’s massacres in the Gaza Strip.

The victory of least week’s referendum, then, comes in the context of a number of years of actions and lobbying by the student Palestine Society and its members. Moreover, the Palestine Society activists went into the campaign well prepared for how best to win the argument.

Student and Palestinian activist Busha Khalidi told me how, since the voting was to be online, the pro-boycott movement had “articles, videos, links, pictures, support letters, blogs, tweets” – all ready beforehand, and ready to be made public “once we were officially allowed to campaign”.

Tellingly, another Palestine Society member, Martha Baker, “ignorance” as the biggest challenge of the ‘Yes’ campaign: “Much of our work involved actually telling people what was happening in Palestine. The more we spoke to people, the more they understood the reasons for boycotting Israel.” That meant investing time in talking to students one-to-one, knocking on doors, and explaining the reality of the situation on the ground.

While other campuses may have stronger groups opposed to such a boycott, the successful campaign at Sussex can serve as a model, and encouragement, to other student groups seeking to raise awareness and translate support into action. It will look different depending on the context, but the vast majority of students understand injustice when they see it – and can be persuaded to do their part for a that continues to build momentum.

First published in Ctrl.Alt.Shift.

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