The weekend of 12th and 13th October 2013 saw the first UK-wide student Palestine solidarity conference hosted in London. The conference was organised out of a desire by numerous university societies across the UK to coordinate their solidarity work for a free Palestine. Held over two days in the University of London Union, the conference offered students the opportunity to choose from ten workshops focused on different aspects of building the student movement and coordinating successful campaigns.
The first day opened with a panel discussion of the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions with guest speakers: Ben White, who spoke about the discrimination facing Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and ‘48 from the Israeli state with particular focus on movement and access, housing and political oppression; Adam Hanieh, who spoke about ‘the myth of the negotiations process’; Anan Quzmar, who spoke of the importance of student solidarity on campus as well as the case for a UK wide network; and Rafeef Ziadah from the War on Want campaign, who spoke about the call for BDS, emphasising the Divestment call in particular which has been somewhat neglected in student campaigns in Europe. The panel was followed by a question and answer session where different issues raised during the panel were discussed in more detail, such as the need for a unified student movement and the desire by those involved to share advice on how to deal with opposition on campus.
From the opening panel on day one; more than 150 people attended the two-day conference.
Following the panel all attendees were invited to attend two workshops that covered basic topics relevant to everyone regardless of the length of their involvement in Palestine solidarity work. These were: ‘Building Effective Campaigns’ and ‘Explaining Israeli Apartheid’. The ‘Building Effective Campaigns’ session combined discussion and sharing of past experiences in campaigning with a planning exercise for building a campaign. It outlined 6 key steps in building a strategy: establish aims; research; pick suitable targets; discuss and decide on tactics; evaluate the campaign; and, assess whether established goals have been reached. The session on ‘Explaining Israeli Apartheid’ was a discussion-based workshop which identified the legal definition of Apartheid and then addressed how it can be used to identify the injustices of the occupation of Palestine. Students used a role playing exercise to discuss the answers to some commonly asked questions about the situation in Palestine and the analysis of Israel as an apartheid state.
The second day began with a brief opening session on building the student movement after the conference from Max Ajl. Max spoke about the student Palestine solidarity experience in the United States, different models of organising as well as the politics of solidarity. The proposal for a follow up committee was also raised.
This was followed by the morning workshop session with three workshops to choose from:
• ‘Throwing Corporate Criminals off Campus’
• ‘Divesting from Israeli Apartheid’
• ‘Building an Academic Boycott’.
A timeline exercise was incorporated into each of the workshops in order to provide students with the means of building a campaign from start to finish, including such key information as fact finding, filing freedom of information requests, and building relations with other groups in the university.
‘Throwing Corporate Criminals off Campus’ took a detailed look at campaign skills and tools with a special focus on campaigns against university contracts with companies that participate in Israeli apartheid such as Veolia, Eden Springs and G4S.
The focus of ‘Divesting from Israeli Apartheid’ was on campaigns seeking to pressure universities to sell any shares they have in companies that are complicit with Israeli violations of international law. Emphasis was placed on the importance of co-ordinating a two-pronged strategy of public campaigning and private correspondence with the university.
‘Building an Academic Boycott’ focused on campaigns that aim to implement a boycott of Israeli universities and academic institutions because of their deep complicity with Israeli apartheid.
The afternoon session offered a selection of five workshops:
• ’Countering Opposition, Repression and Normalisation’
• ‘Working Within Student Unions and the National Union of Students
• ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’
• ‘Running an effective Palestine Society’
• ‘Right to Education Campaign’.
As the solidarity movement continues to grow, Israel and its supporters attempt to sabotage and undermine grassroots campaigning, including pushing for “dialogue”. The ‘Countering Opposition, Repression and Normalisation’ workshop examined and developed strategies for ensuring opposition isn’t able to undermine campaigning on campus. Learning to recognise and resist normalisation was a key theme throughout the workshop and those attending learned different aims and approaches taken by the most prevalent anti-BDS groups active on UK campuses. Students were presented with some of the common arguments and broader strategies used by pro-Israeli actors in order to discuss a variety of possible responses specific to each tactic.
Many student unions now have official policy supporting BDS, but very few have put their weight behind BDS campaigns. In ‘Working Within Student Unions and the National Union of Students’ the issues of how to unleash the potential of student unions supporting BDS and how to make sure our strength on campus is translated into strong support for Palestine and BDS from the National Union of Students were addressed. Students attending this conference were taught how to pass motions through student unions, the format these motions normally take, and how to exploit these motions to the greatest benefit of the PalSoc. The relationship between societies and student union officers, along with how to use student union officers to your advantage was also covered.
The ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ workshop began the discussion on organising Israeli Apartheid Week 2014 on a national level with more coordination between UK university groups, with results from the discussion being presented in the closing session.
In the ‘Running an Effective Palestine Workshop’ the core skills involved in campaigning effectively on campus were discussed. Topics covered in the workshop included running successful events and campaigns, how to deal with university administrations, how to stay organised and the best means of advertising.
The aims of the ‘Right to Education Campaign’ were to introduce the situation of Palestinian education under occupation, the Right to Education campaign and to discuss Right to Education campaigning in the UK, including Right to Education week.
The closing session brought together all conference attendees to hear feedback from some of the workshops and to further discuss and agree on next steps regarding communication, coordination and Israeli Apartheid Week 2014. During this session the dates for Israeli Apartheid week were set as 24th to 28th February 2014, a follow up committee was established and it was agreed that a mailing list would be set up in order to aid communication between Palestine solidarity societies.
Confronting Israeli Apartheid was an undeniable success, providing a unique opportunity for solidarity societies to share successes and challenges faced on campus and to hear first-hand advice based on past experiences. The more than 150 dedicated student activists who attended the conference have built essential links between groups and contributed to a strong and bright future for the student Palestine solidarity movement in the UK.