Safe haven for all students?

From the archive (legacy material)

Polly Curtis | The Guardian | 30 September 2003

Polly Curtis visits Manchester, scene of Israel-Palestine rows last year
In the Reynold Building at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, freshers’ fair is thronging. The music is ear-bleedingly loud, the salsa society is in full swing and the Tai Kwon Do group is out in force. The Jewish students’ body and the Islamic society, among the biggest groups in the university, are two stalls apart.
“The first thing I did at freshers’ fair is look for anything anti-Israel,” says Leah Kutner, president of Manchester Jewish Students, which spans the soon-to-merge Umist and Manchester University. “I shouldn’t have to be on the lookout for anything that’s anti-me.”
There can hardly be a campus in the country where Israel and Palestine hasn’t been fiercely debated at some point. But in Manchester they feel the debate more keenly than most. In 2002 Manchester University’s anti-racism officer at the time, supported by the Islamic society, proposed a motion condemning Israel’s “apartheid regime”. Though the motion was lost, after a noisy debate, Kutner says it has had a lasting effect.
“That motion means we have to be very active. There are a lot of Jewish students and because there is a big Muslim student population we have to fight against that. Potentially they could get another motion. We are cautiously anticipating something to happen. We’re not sure what. But we’re looking over our shoulders.”
When Umist professor Mona Baker sacked two Israeli academics from the editorial boards of two journals she runs, in support of an academic boycott of the country, Umist found itself in the eye of a bitter worldwide debate that resonates even at the start of this term. This week a disciplinary panel at Oxford University is due to decide the fate of one of its professors, Andrew Wilkie, who, in an email responding to an application from an Israeli PhD student, wrote: “I am sure you are perfectly nice at a personal level but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army.”
Baker was cleared by Umist after an inquiry found that the university had no jurisdiction over lecturers’ private undertakings. But her vice-chancellor subsequently created a new rule that the university had a right to insist that none of its academics partake in an academic boycott against Israel in their capacity as employees. She insists she would do the same again.
Kutner says: “When the report came out, we wrote to Umist to say thank you for conducting such a thorough report, but we’re disappointed that no proper action has been taken. We wanted some sort of action taken against her to show that they would not tolerate any form of discrimination.”
The Tai Kwon Do students look blank when asked their views on the academic boycott and the president of the salsa society hasn’t been around long enough to remember the row. But at the Islamic society stand, Zaineb Ali, head of the society’s women, is studying for a PhD in translation and is taught by Mona Baker.
“I support her. She was just doing her bit,” she says. “Everyone [in her department] was behind Mona Baker, even those who didn’t know her. We were shocked at the uproar.”
She adds: “Would I have done the same? I don’t think so. I’m not really a political person. There were fears that the reputation of the university would be affected, but there are lots of freshers here today.”
At the Academy, in the dark and cavernous Manchester University hall where the controversial Israel motion was debated last year, the freshers’ fair is almost as loud as at Umist. On the Friends of Palestine stall, Rumeana Jahangh says that the group wouldn’t attempt another anti-Israel motion. “The motion was about campaigning for Palestinian human rights, not banning Jewish groups,” she says. Now they are focusing on providing information, “educating people”, she adds.
Ian Haworth, head of communications at Umist, admits that the culmination of the two rows made them think about the university’s reputation. “Were we worried? Yep. But I think that in a way we’ve come out stronger. We made a lot of good contacts with the community in Manchester as a result. The discussions we had with the Jewish community were important. There were good things that came out of that.
“What you’ve got to do in this situation is make the university’s position clear, that our job is to provide a safe environment for students regardless of where they come from or who they are.”