On Tuesday November 21 2017 a motion was passed at SU council to boycott Aramark on campus. Aramark run a catering service called Westland Eats, which operate food outlets in the Hamilton. Aramark are also involved in running catering and cleaning services in Direct Provision centres, which are below any acceptable standard of living.
The proposal for the motion discussed how Trinity students need to care about things that don’t affect them but in which they are complicit. By boycotting Aramark on campus TCD students would be sending a message of solidarity to those in Direct Provision. This was met with a round of applause and cheers, and the motion passed without opposition.
Last term, when Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) proposed a motion for TCDSU to support a Palestine Solidarity campaign on campus both the student union president Kieran McNulty at the time and president elect Kevin Keane spoke against. They were the last to speak on the motion. It was argued that there are more relevant issues in Trinity we should be focusing on, and that Palestine Solidarity is not a student issue. Both Keane and McNulty were met with rounds of applause.
This reaction came as a complete shock to pro-BDS (Boycott Divest and Sanction) campaigners as Keane had pledged support to SJP during his election campaign. He had also promised SJP that he wouldn’t speak on the motion. McNulty revealed that the Israeli Deputy Ambassador had contacted him before council, urging him to quash the motion, on the basis that some TCD students “seek to smother free speech and that we should be promoting “peace in the Middle East“. This outside engagement is worrying as the issue of Palestine solidarity will be coming to the fore in the SU once again. On Thursday November 23 SJP will be launching a campaign for a referendum to get the SU to support the BDS movement.
Lack of Engagement
It is interesting to note the unanimous support the current sabbats seem to have for the struggle against Direct Provision, a situation which wouldn’t usually be considered ‘a student issue’. The SU are laying out tiny margins determining which political issues are acceptable and which aren’t. If they can support the plight of refugees and struggles against state racism, then why can’t they support the struggle against apartheid and brutal oppression in Palestine?
Is it because of political pressure from outside bodies such as the Israeli embassy? Or perhaps an unwillingness to associate with an issue that is surrounded by controversy? Either way, a stance of neutrality is complicit. A functional SU needs to be brave enough to take flak for its stances on political issues, not shy away out of fear for its reputation.
One of the main arguments from the floor against the pro-BDS motion brought to Council last March was that people didn’t understand the conflict, and felt pressured to take a position without the prerequisite knowledge. 7 months from now I wonder if these same people have attempted to educate themselves, or are simply comfortable not taking a position on such a controversial issue. A referendum would bring the decision to the entire student body instead of a minority of students with a minority interest; bureaucratic student politics. A homogenous viewpoint can be fostered when student politics is left only to the devices of the SU.
It is undeniable that people are disillusioned with the Student Union generally given the pathetic voter turnout for sabbatical elections, and 4 uncontested races in the 2017 elections. According to University Times there has been a 38% drop in student voter participation since 2014. This is a chronic issue that de-legitimises arguably everything the SU does. 3120 students voted in the last Sabbatical elections, a voter turnout just under 20%. Students are clearly not animated by the current state of SU politics. It is often seen as a sphere of hackery and self-indulgence. Maybe it is time for the SU to have a practical engagement in issues that have a real political impact, both locally and globally. Students should be invested in the actions of their SU. Microwaves and free condoms obviously aren’t encouraging that.
Life in the territories illegally occupied by Israel is violent and undignified for Palestinians. They are not allowed to vote even though Israel claims their land. There are army checkpoints installed to restrict freedom of movement and make what should be simple excruciatingly long and difficult. 540 children were killed on the Gaza Strip in 2014. 2253 palestinian children were detained in Israeli prisons in 2014, many subjected to violent interrogation methods. This brutal treatment of children continues to this day. Israeli military occupations and assaults also contribute to the ongoing displacement of Palestinians being forced to seek refugee status in other countries.
The number of settlers in the illegally occupied West Bank has grown from 190,953 in 1988 to 617,291 in 2015. The state of Israel has made it very clear that it has no intention of stopping the illegal occupations, even though it is breaking international law. The occupations have been condemned and confirmed as illegal countless times in UN resolutions.
The systematic discrimination by Israel against the Palestinian people, its occupation of Palestinian territories, and its its violations of international law and are unacceptable, and must be challenged.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)
SJP was set up by TCD students in 2015. In 2016 the campaign started to gain momentum as many students started to get involved from a wide range of left wing political tendencies. In its current form SJP is a horizontally led campaign. The campaign has worked with members of Academics for Palestine in TCD including Ronit Lentin, BDS activist Malaka Mohammed (a Palestinian academic studying under Ilan Pappé), and has hosted multiple panel discussions with people who have travelled to Palestine and witnessed the situation for themselves.
170 Palestinian civil society groups have been calling for global support of the BDS movement since 2005; a non-violent form of protest against the barbarity of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Alongside organisations such as Academics for Palestine, SJP want to target TCD’s affiliations with institutions that support, enforce and normalize apartheid, including universities such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which is partly built on illegal settlement land) and security companies such as G4S, which directly profits from the oppression of Palestinian communities in the Occupied Territories. This would not be a boycott of individuals (including academics or students), but an institutional boycott – as with the previous measures TCD enforced against apartheid South Africa. In reference to TCD’s historic support of a boycott of South Africa in the 70s and 80s, their referendum manifesto states:
“As previous struggles against racism and apartheid have affirmed – and indeed the same is true of TCD’s own history of anti-apartheid action – boycott is an effective means of exposing and protesting crimes against humanity, as well as the complicity by affiliation of our own educational and political establishments in these crimes. With this in mind, we are resolved to work towards the day when the fundamental rights and legitimate demands of the Palestinian people are respected by Israel, and when we can truly call our own university, TCD, apartheid-free”
It is worth noting, of course, that in 2013 the SU voted unanimously to commemorate the university’s previous support for the anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa by renaming House 6 “Mandela House” – in tribute not just to Nelson Mandela himself, but to the TCD students and academics who organised to support the historic struggle against apartheid which he came to represent.
With the campaign for a referendum on BDS, we will have the rare opportunity to affect the decisions of the educational institution of which we are a part. We have a right to make our voices heard and to influence how this institution is run. Students have been at the forefront of many progressive movements in society, such as campaigning to make contraception widely available, engaging in anti-war protesting, and campaigning against apartheid South Africa, as mentioned previously. Even today, students play a huge role in the movement for abortion rights. We should continue the tradition of being on the right side of history, and through this participate meaningfully in our Student Union. One way of doing this is by campaigning for this referendum, and making sure your vote counts when the time comes.
An issue as complex as this cannot be explained in one article. Before making your mind up, or deciding to duck out, I urge anyone reading this to look for yourself. Read up on the issue. Look at the statistics year on year. Look at the history of the conflict. You are being given the chance to make an informed decision on this issue, and the outcome of this proposed referendum will change the lives of Palestinians, whether it means more ignorance, or essential international solidarity.