Top-up fees have undoubtedly been the top issue in Britain's student unions this year; but running a very close second have been growing anxieties about both Muslim extremists and Israeli human rights abuses. In an increasingly bitter and acrimonious environment, rival groups have been using "no platform" policies - which were designed to exclude fascist groups - to shut their opponents out of university grounds. As Roseanne Levene, student support officer at the University of the West of England, explains: "Students have had to re-evaluate our interpretation of 'no platform' policies following 9/11 and the intifada. In practice, any religious fundamentalists are now banned from our student union because they are seen as not compatible with a tolerant multicultural environment."
This is being fiercely contested across the country. Some student commentators believe that the situation has deteriorated to a level unseen since the early 1980s, when some campuses banned Jewish societies for their pro-Israeli stance. The sectarian conflicts fought out in student unions now include a move by the National Union of Students to ban al-Muhajiroun, an organisation fronted by the bitterly anti-Semitic and homophobic Omar Bakri Mohammed. The group has been linked to attacks on Muslims who reject their views and to posters reading "Kill the Jews". Bans on Muslim fundamentalist groups have been dodged in the recent past by establishing front groups such as the Muslim Current Affairs Society, which involved the same personnel and espouse the same philosophy as Bakri's contraband sect. The ban has the support not only of Jewish organisations but also of many liberal Muslims.
There have been parallel moves to ban the sale of Israeli goods on British campuses. Students at both Queen Mary and Westfield College and the University of East London have already voted to support the ban, and several universities (including Cambridge) have votes pending. Several students have expressed concern that this targets all Israelis, even those who are fighting to end the military occupation of Palestine. The Union of Jewish Students also fears that the moves create a climate in which anti-Semitic violence becomes more acceptable. As Alan Senitt, the union's chair, says: "In Queen Mary and Westfield, in the days after the vote [to ban Israeli goods], Jewish students were assaulted . . . Back in Manchester earlier this year, where the first vote on this issue was held, the Jewish hall of residence had a brick put through its window."
But the proponents of the motion claim that Israel is now a racist apartheid state and should have sanctions imposed upon it just as de Klerk's South Africa once did.
Whatever bans are put in place, the battles of the Middle East will continue to be fought out in Britain's universities.