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The bitter and divisive conflict between Israel and Palestine threatened to engulf Edinburgh University Students’ Association last week, after it emerged that a senior student leader at the union accepted an all-expenses-paid five-day trip to Israel courtesy of the Union of Jewish Students, which saw her meet with members of the Israel Defense Forces and visit a controversial Jewish settlement in the Palestinian Territories.
Emma Meehan (pictured, above), EUSA’s vice-president for societies and activities, was part of a UJS-organised delegation which flew to Jerusalem on Wednesday 4 January on what one source described as a “fact-finding trip”, but which critics have been quick to label a “propaganda” mission.
The group, comprising Labour party-aligned student representatives from around the UK and led by UJS campaigns officer Dan Sheldon, have been heavily criticised by pro-Palestine campaigners in the UK and abroad after it emerged that they met with Captain Barak Raz, an Israeli Defence Forces officer who serves as the military’s spokesman for the West Bank. The delegation is also understood to have visited Gush Etzion, a controversial group of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Liam O’Hare, president of Edinburgh Students for Justice in Palestine, told The Journal he was “horrified” that Ms Meehan had chosen to join the trip, which he said was “designed to whitewash the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people.”
He said that her participation “has brought the union into disrepute and outraged students from across the political spectrum.
“SJP condemns in the strongest terms the involvement of one of our elected sabbatical officers in this Zionist propaganda trip, and will investigate raising this in all possible forums.”
But Ms Meehan defended her decision to travel with the group, saying that the delegation’s purpose was to “learn more about the history of the conflict and prospects of future peace and reconciliation.”
She told The Journal: “We met with a wide variety of people, including a spokesperson of the IDF and an Israeli government, as well as Palestinian activists and Israeli Arabs.
“In every case we challenged the people we met on the many contentious issues surrounding the debate, from settlements to evictions.”
Ms Meehan has hit back at her critics, accusing them of “closing lines of communication”. She added: “I firmly believe that we need to provide opportunities on campus for students to understand the true complexity of the conflict… condemning students for developing an understanding of the conflict is both intimidating and damaging to campus relations as a whole.”
Ms Meehan’s presence on the trip is seen as particularly controversial because of EUSA’s links with the student body of Birzeit University, a leading Palestinian higher education institution. In 2005, EUSA members voted to twin the association with both the Birzeit student council and the Palestinian grassroots organisation Right to Education.
Noting the recent passage of a EUSA student council motion mandating the union’s executive to “work towards forming closer links with their peers at Birzeit”, Mr O’Hare commented that “instead of doing what student council has mandated her to do, Emma is instead meeting with and giving credibility to representatives of institutions which deny Palestinian students the right to education.
“It is utterly shameful,” he added.
In a statement released to The Journal, the Birzeit University Student Council said they were “very disappointed and shocked” to learn of the trip.
“As students at Birzeit University we were looking forward to working towards forming closer relations and links with EUSA,” they said. “However, Emma’s participation in a politically motivated mission which sole aim is to whitewash Israel’s crimes and the suffering of the Palestinians is disgraceful.”
Accusing Ms Meehan of taking “a political stance”, the council further accused her of showing “a blatant disregard for the history of student activism for human rights at Edinburgh University”, and called upon “the other sabbatical officers, and the wider student body [to] distance themselves from this shameful trip and condemn Ms Meehan for taking part.”
Some of Ms Meehan’s closest colleagues have expressed muted concern over her participation. Mike Williamson, EUSA vice-president for academic affairs, told The Journal: “Anyone who knows my politics knows I’m no fan of Israel, and I certainly wouldn’t have gone if I’d been asked to.”
But Mr Williamson stopped short of openly criticising his fellow sabbatical officer, commenting that although he was “very concerned” that the group had met with IDF spokespeople, it is “the electorate’s job, not mine, to scrutinise Emma’s actions, and she hasn’t broken any rules that I know of.”
Ms Meehan has sought to stress that she travelled in a private capacity, saying: “I took annual leave to attend this trip, and my attendance was of no cost to EUSA.”
However, Mr O’Hare has criticised this claim as naive, remarking that while “those on the trip may claim they are taking part in a private capacity… they received the invitations because of their involvement in student politics and this completely free trip is undoubtedly aimed at influencing decisions made in both current and future roles.”
It is unclear at this stage what repercussions the row might have for Ms Meehan. However, SJP sources have indicated that they intend to attempt a censure motion at the next meeting of EUSA’s Student Council.
Daniel Sheldon, the UJS campaigns director who led the trip, told The Journal that the union has run trips like this one for “many decades”, and that they involve discussions with “a wide variety of activists, educators and journalists from across the political spectrum – Israeli and Palestinian. Nothing is off limits, and the tough questions get asked.
“It’s important for Jewish students that student officers gain a better understanding of the conflict, as the conflict often plays out in a very negative way on our campuses.”
He attacked the boycott tactics favoured by pro-Palestinian groups like SJP, saying: “UJS campaigns for freedom, justice and equality for Israelis and Palestinians through two states for two peoples. We believe this will be achieved through dialogue and building bridges – for instance, educational trips such as these – not boycotts.”
Ms Meehan is not the first EUSA sabbatical officer to visit the region. In 2009, then-president Adam Ramsay travelled to Palestine with his sabb colleagues Guy Bromley and Naomi Hunter. In 2008, his presidential predecessor Josh MacAlister also visited Israel.