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  1. The Weekend Report
11 May 2024

On the Oxbridge barricade

Pro-Palestinian protesters at British universities are obscuring their own message.

By Harry Lambert

The University of Cambridge has more than 20,000 students. At lunchtime on Thursday 9 May, 41 of them were encamped on a small patch of lawn along King’s Parade, outside one of the university’s grandest colleges in the centre of town.

If 41 students had set up camp anywhere else in the country other than Cambridge or Oxford, it is unlikely their protest would generate much interest or publicity. But a historical reverence for these institutions has handed students here an outsized voice in the national story. When Oxbridge students act, the media duly follows.

These students have, as the young and online in Britain now tend to do, acted in the wake of an American example. The campus protests in the US have rocked many of its universities, with violence clashes between police and protesters. The situation in Cambridge is less fraught, although the students share the same cause: Israel’s assault on Gaza. The Israeli military are now advancing into Rafah, the last city in the Strip it had not yet reached.

I was told by one of the encampment’s spokespersons, code name “Raptor”, that the protest would end when the genocide in Gaza does, but it was unclear how a genocide was being defined: did the spread of illegal settlements in the West Bank, which predate the Hamas-led attack on 7 October, amount to a genocide? Did Israeli control of Gaza’s border since the first Oslo Accord in 1993 constitute part of one too? The issues are grave – the atrocities of 7 October, the atrocities that have followed it, what role if any Western universities have played – but the New Statesman’s hunt for specific answers to the questions provoked by the encampment’s demands was dismissed as beside the point, even hostile.

“We have plenty of information on billboards,” said one taciturn student wearing a high-vis jacket and sitting on the encampment wall. “We encourage you not to ask questions,” said another, who was finding her role as a police liaison uneventful.

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A trio of staff observers were equally reluctant to talk. “We are here to protect the free speech of the students,” said one, a young Middle East scholar in a white T-shirt and a loop earring, as he discouraged me from asking any student other than “Raptor” anything at all. Another staff observer, a woman clad in a Covid-era face mask and sandals, declined to give her name, but greeted my attempts to ask her about the encampment with disdain. You will find more casual civility at a Trump rally.

What do these students want? Their list of demands was nine pages long and fastened to the encampment wall, beside a Palestinian flag, a large watermelon (representing the struggle of Palestinian territories against Israeli occupation), and a cardboard poster that read: “If people r occupied [sic], resistance is justified!” The list ran for almost 2,500 words and included 31 actions that the university must carry out – almost as many demands as there were students present. I asked Raptor to summarise them.

“Cambridge has millions in investments, grants and research partnerships with arms companies. It’s frankly f***ing disgusting that they’re investing in these companies. This is meant to be an educational institution for the betterment of humanity, right? That is why students come here to learn. Instead, their investments are directly linked with bombing every university in Gaza to the ground.”

In a bid to clarify Cambridge’s culpability in Gaza, I asked Raptor to name the companies in question. He cited BAE Systems, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Elbit Systems, Caterpillar – and Barclays, a bank used by 20 million people in the UK. The students want Cambridge to disclose any investment in “companies complicit” in the genocide in Gaza as part of an “ethical audit”, and to divest from them. “The list goes on and on,” Raptor told me.

Indeed it does. The “companies complicit” has been defined by the Palestinian Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement. They include: Google and Amazon (for providing cloud computing services to Israel); Puma (for sponsoring the Israeli Football Association); Disney (for featuring a superhero who “personifies apartheid Israel” in Captain America); Airbnb, and Expedia (for facilitating a rental market in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank); Hewlett Packard (for providing Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority with servers); Hyundai and Volvo (whose cars have been driven by Israeli settlers); and the French supermarket chain Carrefour (for supplying food to Israeli soldiers).

Raptor was unaware of the full list of companies from which Cambridge had to divest. “I myself am not on the demands team. We can get bogged down on the precise details, but we’re talking about hundreds of millions invested in genocidal companies.” The demands team were not available to speak to the media. “It’s the most open, welcoming community I’ve seen in Cambridge,” Raptor reflected, before warning me not to talk to anyone else.

The encampment is not designed to disrupt life in Cambridge, for the administrators of the university’s endowment fund or anyone else living and working here. It is less a protest than a safe space for a few – very few – like-minded students to express themselves. The day featured a tatreez workshop and a kite-making session. What might have been seen as cultural appropriation in 2020 was now cast as an act of solidarity.

Two teaching assistants from the local primary school, who had emigrated from Turkey more than a decade ago, paused outside the camp. They were delighted by it. It was raising awareness and showing how broad support for Gaza is. “They are going to hold Friday prayers tomorrow,” said one of the women, Nurcihan, in amazement. After we finished speaking the students beckoned the two women over. They seemed startled by their willingness to talk to the press without a chaperone.

The encampment is tiny in part because you are asked to fulfil certain criteria on arrival. All who wish to spend the first days of high spring in a tent on King’s Parade are directed to the “community guidelines” first. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-blackness, racism, misogyny, transphobia and ableism are forbidden; you are to wear a mask outdoors, and to stay away if you have Covid in 2024; no recreational drugs or alcohol are allowed. If you wish to bring food it is to be vegan, and also nut- and sesame-free. In a bid to cater to the most specific need, the encampment operates under its own abnormal norms, arguably narrowing adoption of its cause.

Trinity, Christ’s and King’s College have all disclosed their investments in BDS companies that have been targeted for “divestment and exclusion”, revealing that they hold a mixture of direct and indirect investments in them. (Some of the companies opposed by BDS, such as Google and Amazon, Airbnb and Booking, are only targets for “pressure”; a recognition, perhaps, that consumers and investors are not going to boycott companies on which the internet runs, or that they need to use to go on holiday.)

The university itself has a £4bn endowment fund, run by Tilly Franklin, its chief investment officer, who has already faced pressure to divest from fossil fuel companies; the fund is no longer directly invested in them, and plans to cease indirect investment by 2030, a timetable that has not satisfied many climate protesters. Although the fund that Franklin manages is the focus of the encampment’s demands, the students’ permanent parade is applying no pressure to it. (The university has said in response to the protests that it “is fully committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law and we acknowledge the right to protest”.)

Franklin was unavailable for an interview, but her response to the divestment campaign can be foreseen from her response to past pressure. “We are not going to solve the climate crisis through divestment as others will own the assets we sell,” she said in 2022. Protests have led to recent changes of policy at other elite universities, such as Trinity College Dublin and Brown University in the US, but you might expect any change in investment policy at Cambridge to be gradual, if there is one at all.

Nurcihan, the teaching assistant, recognised the limits of divestment for Gaza, even if the students she was praising did not. “The sad thing is they still can’t stop the war, nothing is changing.”

Additional reporting by George Monaghan.

[See also: Inside the fight for smartphone-free childhoods]

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