The University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies has a reputation as a world-class center of learning. But recently the college has been in the news more for the anti-Israel sentiments of some of its students than for the quality of its teaching.
A series of high-profile controversies have left Jewish students at the central London college feeling threatened and intimidated, and some are warning that tensions are spiraling out of control.
The latest furor centers on an article published in SOAS Spirit, the glossy student magazine. The article, “When Only Violence Will Do,” scoffs at the concept of “innocent” Israeli victims, describes the whole of Israel as a Jewish colony that should be dismantled and calls for all Zionists to be “exposed.”
“Non-violent resistance is no solution either,” writes its author, Nasser Amin. “We know what the Israelis can do to unarmed peace activists. Violence, rather than feebleness, generates power for the oppressed.”
A graduate student in Near and Middle Eastern studies who heads the college’s Jewish club said the article made him feel uncomfortable.
“There are Israeli students here, and people like myself who consider themselves Zionists,” said Gavin Gross, 43. “The article seems to imply that we’re all targets.”
The magazine’s editor, Matthew Phillips, said it was his responsibility “to give freedom of speech to students at the school.”
That argument, however, seems somewhat weakened by the union’s attempt last month to bar Israeli Embassy official Roey Gilad from addressing a Jewish society event. That decision eventually was overturned by the college administration.
But this is just the latest in a series of incidents to hit the college, long dubbed “the School of Anti-Semitism” in Jewish student circles.
Earlier this month, London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone was elected the students union’s first-ever honorary president. That followed weeks of controversy over Livingstone’s refusal to apologize for comparing a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard, and followed as well a newspaper article where he accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a war criminal.
Describing the mayor as a “champion of liberation campaigns” who “embodies the beliefs of SOAS students union,” the motion added: “Ken Livingstone has been at the receiving end of an unfair and totally biased media campaign aimed at discrediting his attempts at encouraging unity and diversity in London.”
When Gross nominated South Africa’s former president, Nelson Mandela, as a less-divisive candidate for the honorary position, his suggestion was shouted down.
Describing the aggressive atmosphere at the union’s general meeting, Gross said, “It was used as a forum to attack ‘apartheid’ Israel, the ‘war criminal’ Ariel Sharon, the Zionist press and Mossad conspiracies. But the meeting shouldn’t have been about Israel at all.”
But the Middle East conflict is the dominant issue on the school’s campus. The student union officially considers Zionism as a form of racism, and in November 2004 the school hosted an international conference called “Resisting Israeli Apartheid.”
Jewish and Israeli students make up a tiny minority of the school’s 3,000 or so students, but “there’s always been an issue” with the college, said Danny Stone, the campaigns manager for the school’s Union of Jewish Students. “It’s one of the most problematic campuses for Jewish students.”
“We are trying to work with the university authorities to make sure that tensions are reduced,” he added.
The main difficulty, he said, lies with the student union, which he describes as “unaccountable and undemocratic. It misrepresents Jewish students and is complicit in the tensions that Jewish students are coming under.”
“We take concerns of all Jewish students and all other students at SOAS seriously,” countered a spokesman for the student union. “We are organizing a workshop with all those who have expressed concerns over recent events at SOAS, to ameliorate the situation.”
It is ironic that the atmosphere has deteriorated so severely just as hopes for peace in the Middle East are resurgent.
That paradox makes perfect sense to Chana Garrard, 29, who studies Arabic. “The SOAS student body are living on another planet, and not really paying attention to what’s going on out there,” she said. “They just think on an ideological level.”
The wide range of students from all over the world means the school can be a fun and interesting place, she said — but she had never before experienced such an extreme level of prejudice.
“To be honest I now find the atmosphere can be quite intimidating, with all sorts of talk in the common room about Zionist conspiracies and so on,” Garrard said.
“SOAS is rightly proud of its long tradition of vigorous debate, tolerance and openness,” said a school spokesman. “We are also aware that student politics has recently become polarized and are extremely concerned to take appropriate steps to address any infringement of the school’s own Freedom of Expression Statement of Principles.”
That’s not enough to pacify Gross, who believes firm and immediate action must be taken against the students union directly.
“This is a very uncomfortable place to be,” he added. “Jewish students are saying publicly that they feel frightened.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.