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How Britain’s Universities Are Complicit in Israel’s Occupation

Britain's universities have invested £455 million in companies complicit in Israel's occupation, but students are organising a divestment campaign in solidarity with Palestinians – and to kick apartheid off campus.

In the past week, there have been significant waves of solidarity with the people of Palestine both locally and on a global scale. Saturday saw almost 150,000 demonstrators marching together in London to condemn Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians, both historically and more recently, including the latest attempt to forcibly dispossess residents of Sheikh Jarrah.

In 2020, a series of FOIs sought by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) revealed that over 100 UK universities invest over £455 million in Israeli companies linked to violations of international law, including those supplying weapons and facilitating illegal settlements.

In a statement for Tribune, a spokesperson says the research was originally launched over fears that universities did not have adequate responsible investment or due diligence procedures in place. The PSC supported student groups sending out FOIs on a campus-by-campus basis.

‘We have a list of specific companies where there is rigorous and extensive evidence that they are engaged in activities supporting Israel’s human rights abuses against the Palestinian people – i.e., companies financing or directly involved in Israel’s military industry, settlement industry, and surveillance of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories,’ the PSC explained.

‘51 UK universities who do hold investments provided us with the full data. Based on the concrete data from these universities, and excluding any anomalies, we have calculated an average “complicity percentage” for the sector, i.e., an average percentage for what proportion of a university’s total endowment is invested in complicit companies, which we apply to the total portfolio of those who use exemptions to prevent us from accessing the data, to give an estimate for those where we cannot ascertain their investments.’

The findings are stark. ‘That institutions who are supposed to act ethically invest money in companies aiding violations of human rights is a dereliction of the moral and ethical duty universities have as pillars of their communities,’ the spokesperson added.

Academic Sofia Akel shared these findings on her Instagram last week, leading to a surge in student debate about divestment. ‘Some universities poorly attempt to align themselves with liberation or decolonial scholarship, and in doing so, the movement is reduced to simple matters of “diversity”,’ she told Tribune. ‘Decolonisation is not a metaphor, it is not abstract… It means liberation, it means (in the case of universities) divesting from companies complicit in modern-day colonialism and apartheid.’

Akel reiterated that fee-paying students have the right to demand that their money is not invested in violent oppression. ‘It’s not uncommon for people to strive to be conscious consumers: we’ve seen this in many areas, such as the movement to ‘shop green’ to protect the environment.’

With tens of thousands sharing the findings from the PSC and using this email template to demand answers of their university authorities, a coordinated response has unfolded among students across the UK, urging divestment from complicit companies.

The collective action now taking place is not new – it’s a continuation of student activism that came before. Students in Britain were at the forefront of the early Apartheid Off Campus campaigns against the South African apartheid regime: in 1971 the National Union of Students and the Anti-Apartheid Movement campaign creating a network to co-ordinate student campaigns. By pressing universities to divest completely from South Africa, students at nearly every university and college in the UK were active in anti-apartheid resistance. Many were also involved in raising funds for liberation movements across southern Africa.

Today, social media is a pivotal tool in coordinating these movements. Various university Palestine societies have been sharing resources on how to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. The BDS movement has become a central focus, giving young students who were not alive during South African apartheid the opportunity to learn about the geopolitical impact of consumer choices and the power they can have, if mobilised en masse. Using the database compiled by the PSC, students can see whether their university invests in companies complicit in Israeli violations of international law.

‘University students pay a huge price for our education,’ Law student Hana Aisha said. ‘That means we have a right to question and object to money being used to fund apartheid regimes. I urge all students to reach out to their universities: our voices matter.’

Environment and Development student Sapphire called the discovery that her university invests £1.8 million in complicit companies ‘sickening’. ‘My uni in particular prides itself on backing social mobility and giving scholarships to asylum seekers, so this is a total contradiction. Students deserve to know where their extortionate student loans are going, and now we do – and it’s horrifying and disappointing, to say the absolute least.’

Psychology graduate Meg expressed similar dismay. ‘I wrote to my university, because when you decide to pay for your education, you hope every penny is going to something positive. To think my money was potentially being used for war and ethnic cleansing was shocking. At 18 I didn’t have the means to get that information.’

The pressure exerted on universities has already had some success: last year Manchester University committed to divesting from firms involved in the Israeli arms trade. But the UK government itself has sold over £380 million in weapons to Israel in the past five years. This is an international problem that requires international resistance – and by fighting university investment, students have the opportunity to be at the forefront of the movement for change.