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Students at King’s College London are staging a sit-in protest on campus over the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the honorary doctorate bestowed on the Israeli president, Shimon Peres.
In the latest of a flurry of occupations at English universities in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza, more than 100 students took over a lecture theatre in the university yesterday.
Kings students are demanding that the university issue a formal statement condemning Israel’s bombing of Gaza and revoke the honorary doctorate Peres was awarded in November last year.
The protesters also want King’s, and its vice-chancellor, Rick Trainor, to provide five fully funded scholarships for Palestinian students, help organise a cross-campus fundraising day, establish links with educational institutions in Gaza, and donate any surplus educational resources to them. In addition, they are calling for King’s to publish a list of any links it has with the arms trade.
In a statement, the students said: “We stand in solidarity with the people of Gaza and refuse to let our university, one which we are very proud of being a part of, award a doctorate to a man who has not only been an advocate of the recent brutality in Gaza, but also a protagonist in the history of bloodshed that has scarred the Middle East.”
They added: “It is important to note that there have not been university occupations like this since the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s.”
Erin O’Byrne, a first-year law student, said: “It’s disgraceful that Shimon Peres was given an honorary doctorate. None of us think that can be done in our name.
“There’s usually a lot of apathy among students especially in King’s, which is quite conservative, but the humanitarian crisis in December pushed people into doing something now.”
She said the university was allowing the protest but ignoring the students’ demands.
King’s said Peres’s doctorate was in recognition of his past efforts to find a peaceful solution to conflicts in the Middle East, and there were no plans to take the “unprecedented action of revoking the award”.
A spokeswoman said the university’s senior officers understood the reason behind the protest. It would make no formal statement, but concurred with a statement made by Trainor on behalf of the vice-chancellors’ group, Universities UK (UUK).
Trainor, UUK’s president, said: “UUK supports calls for an end to the conflict in and beyond Gaza. We are particularly aware that many of the civilian casualties have occurred in educational establishments.
“The UK’s universities are resolutely committed to the right to education, enshrined in the UN universal declaration of human rights. Higher education, in particular, is a global activity and we value our academic links with universities all over the world.
“The international nature of higher education means it is a force for understanding, tolerance and respect between peoples.”
Over the last week, students have held occupations in five other universities: the School of Oriental and African Studies, the London School of Economics, Essex, Birmingham and Sussex.
The director of Soas, Paul Webley, said it would be “inappropriate for the school to make any overtly political statement as an institution”.
In a further indication of rising tensions on campus, a campaigning group against antisemitism, Engage, has claimed that students and lecturers at Soas have been trying to cancel a series of lectures on Tel Aviv at 100 by Prof Colin Shindler.
It said Shindler, professor of Israel studies at Soas, had been bombarded with “highly aggressive, vituperative emails” from many people, but most worryingly from his academic colleagues and fellow members of the University and College Union.
In a letter to staff, Shindler said it was “terribly unfortunate” that the timing of the lecture series had coincided with the situation in Gaza.
“Any call for cancelling this series will be seen as not based on opposition to the centenary, but on the participation of Israeli academics; a resurrection of the attempt to boycott academics simply because they are Israeli regardless of their opinion about the tragedy in Gaza. Soas as an institution and the British government have always strongly opposed and condemned such a boycott,” he said. “Academic institutions rightly do not suppress different narratives and different opinions.”
Adam Pike, national chairman of the Union of Jewish Students, said: “The recent protests, which have been met with widespread derision from students, have served only to inflame tensions and increase intimidation.
“UJS is really concerned about the creation of an unsafe atmosphere for Jewish students at university and, while we will do all we can to support our students, we expect the leadership of the higher education sector to do all in their power as well.
“We shouldn’t let political fringe groups determine the kind of university experience that all students, including Jewish ones, have while on campus. The rising levels of antisemitic incidents across the UK should be a cause for concern for everyone.”