‘Anti-apartheid’ campaign gathers momentum on campus

Student campaign looks to form anti-apartheid committee on the back of Graduate Students’ Union endorsement and support from academics.

newsThe ‘TCD Apartheid-Free Campus Campaign’, a new student campaign calling on College to cut its links with institutions and companies that support the Israeli occupation of Palestine, has gathered momentum in the last week after being endorsed by the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). A motion passed by 33 out of 56 votes at the union’s council meeting on Wednesday pledged support for the campaign as it looks to raise the issue at board level in the coming weeks.

The campaign, led by PhD student Ciaran O’Rourke, was launched last month after members of the Academics for Palestine (AfP) organisation revealed that Trinity has worked with Israeli drone manufacturer Elbit Security Systems and two other Israeli firms on an airport security project, as well as a separate project with Israel’s International Security and Counter-Terrorism Academy, which they claim contribute to the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

The GSU is now a signatory of the campaign’s petition, which calls on board members to end College’s research affiliations with firms that operate in or provide security services for Israeli occupation zones in Palestine, and to cut ties with Israeli institutions that deny equal right to Palestinian academics and have not condemned Israel’s “illegal policy of occupation and settlement in Palestine”. College, the GSU motion states should “ensure that it does not participate in co-funded or shared research projects with such universities, institutions of firms, while Israel’s policy of occupation and discrimination against the Palestinian people persists.”

While the GSU is obligated to respect any motions passed by its council, Megan Lee, the union’s president, told Trinity News that it would “invite any interested postgraduate student to bring forth a proposal regarding the TCD Apartheid Free Campus campaign if he or she wishes to modify, amend or quash the conclusions reached by Council.”

The passing of the motion is one in a series of recent displays of support for the TCD Apartheid Free Campus Campaign. Among the Trinity lecturers and academics that have so far signed its petition are Dr. Siobhan Garrigan, the Loyola Chair of Catholic Theology; Professor Cormac Ó’ Cuilleanáin from the Department of Italian, Dr. Norah Campbell from the School of Business, Dr. Fintan Sheerin from the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Dr. Ciarán Cosgrove from the Department of Hispanic Studies, and Dr. Andrew Finlay and Dr. David Landy from the Department of Sociology. Dr. Ronit Lentin and Dr. Barbara Bradby, both retired sociology lecturers, have also confirmed their support of the campaign.

O’Rourke intends to build on these steps with an academic colloquium celebrating “the work of Mary Robinson and the law lecturer Kader Asmal against apartheid both in Trinity and internationally.” Recognition of the work of Trinity academics against apartheid in South Africa is the inspiration for the campaign and the acknowledgment of this work is one its principal aims, he told Trinity News. He is hoping to establish a committee at a meeting this Friday to decide on actions to be taken. Support from the GSU is significant as its president sits on the college’s board and therefore has the ability to raise issues within what is the executive governing body, he said. Fellows will also be targeted by the campaign. “It’s about getting the people they represent on side and making them aware of it themselves,” O’Rourke said. The campaign, which is supported by the Academics for Palestines (AfP) organisation, has reached just over 200 signatories on its petition and hopes to achieve a target of 500 before presenting to the provost and board.

While a number of undergraduates have expressed interest in putting forward a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) motion at SU council, this approach differents from the apartheid-free campaign in calling for a boycott of Israel as opposed to a boycott working to “end academic complicity in the policies and crimes of apartheid states internationally,” Ciaran said.

Last week also saw a campus debate on the academic boycott of Israel organised by the Irish School of Ecumenics. The debate, which was chaired by Newstalk journalist Shona Murray in the Thomas Davis theatre on Wednesday, was led by Palestinian writer Dr Ghada Karmi; Prof Ilan Pappé, an Israeli historian and a leading BDS; and British political theorist Prof Alan Johnson.

Professor Alan Johnson spoke first against the BDS movement. He claimed that an academic boycott would only serve to reinforce the siege mentality of right-wing Israeli nationalists and that comparing Israel to South Africa under apartheid mischaracterises what is an unresolved national conflict. He said that the blunt instrument of a boycott fails to grapple with the complexities of the situation and undermines the potential for negotiations. In defence of the need to separate Israeli academics from Israeli government policy, he asked his opponents if they would boycott Harvard University because of the actions of the US government has taken around the world.

The first of the two pro-boycott speakers, Professor Ilan Pappé, opened his speech with an anecdote about visiting the West Bank with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. After observing the realities of life in the West Bank, Tutu remarked that it was worse than anything he had seen under apartheid because even the most fervent Afrikaner did not wish to completely destroy the South Africans. He argued that Israeli academia was as a whole complicit in the destruction of Palestine. “The whole academic establishment is needed to brand an act of destruction as an act of self-defence and indeed an entitled act of self-defence,” he said. “Doctors to treat people in order to torture them again, architects to build walls, orientalists to legitimise dispossession.”

The final speaker, Dr Ghada Karmi, dismissed the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict, citing Israel’s continued acquisition of land during and after attempts at negotiation and peace talks. She went on to argue for BDS as a tool of civil society which could be used to respond to the oppression of Palestinian academics and students under Israeli occupation. “I long for the day when someone can say anything about Israel and not be accused of anti-Semitism,” she said. “It obscures the real issues. Look at its policies clearly and understand that they are unacceptable.”

There were heated scenes when the floor was opened up to questions from the crowd, with order having to be called several times to prevent shouting and interruptions. Questions were largely directed at Alan Johnson and were critical of his anti-boycott stance. Several Palestinian academics gave passionate personal accounts of their experiences under Israeli occupation. One man offered to buy Johnson a plane ticket to Israel and fund his expenses on the condition that Johnson visits his children in the West Bank who he hasn’t been able to see in 14 years because of the occupation. Given the predominance of pro-BDS views in the room, the chair sought out questions from the other side but only three hands were raised. One audience member brought up the claim that Palestinians wish to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. “No one is calling for the elimination of the Israeli people,” Dr Ghada Karmi responded. “The way that Israel is structured – oppressive, racist, colonialist, genocidal, land hungry – is what people are calling for destruction. Not the elimination of the actual people.”

Photo: Matthew Mulligan