ACFI (Alumni for Campus Freedom Ireland) is “a group of alumni from universities and colleges on the island of Ireland who reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement”. Its members “support open, fair dialogue on the Israel-Palestine situation” but believe that “BDS policies have a chilling effect on discourse in third-level educational institutions and create a hostile environment for Jewish, Israeli and pro-Israel students”. You can find them here on Facebook and here on Twitter.
ACFI has been in contact with student unions in various universities within the Island of Ireland and was the subject of a recent article in the UCD (University College, Dublin) student union magazine, College Tribune. The article certainly isn’t positive and its overall tone seems to be to warn students of the dangers posed by the group.
In particular, the article concludes by stating that UCDSU (UCD Students’ Union) will have to start acting on its “mandate” to “support Palestine through a boycott of Israel”. Apparently, on April 3rd last, UCDSU passed a mandate “for UCD Students’ Union to support the [anti-Israeli BDS] movement”. That one slipped under the radar – so much under the radar that it’s not even mentioned on the abovementioned College Tribune website, the website of the UCDSU’s magazine as this search of the website from March to May 2018 shows. How many UCD students are aware of this never mind support it, if it has received so little publicity?
The article takes a mildly gloating attitude about how “easily” the UCDSU gave itself this mandate to boycott Israel and Israelis, attributing it to the lack of Jewish or Israeli students on campus. This shows a weirdly binary mindset. Some of the Israel’s greatest supporters are neither Jewish nor Israeli: some of the most trenchant critics of the current Israeli government are both. That’s a democracy for ya, folks. The same gloatingly-toned paragraph refers to the “much larger” Islamic Society on campus. The mindset kicks in again. Does the author believe that all Muslims hate Israel? Perhaps she might read up on recent developments in relations between Israel and the gulf states.
The article goes on to claim that there’s “an increase in student outrage at Irish university’s (sic) ties with Israel” citing a motion (proposed by Queen’s University, Belfast) passed at the USI (Union of Students in Ireland) congress and a referendum at TCD (Trinity College, Dublin) at which it claims that “64% of students voted in favour of their Union supporting [the] BDS campaign against Israel”. This is utter nonsense. Just over 11% of the 17,000 students voted in the referendum so the actual number of students voting for the anti-Israeli BDS campaign was about 1 in 14. This is a feature of anti-Israel referenda at third level colleges in Ireland and worldwide. A majority of a tiny tiny minority of students vote to boycott Israel. The other Irish university to vote for BDS was NUIG (National University of Ireland, Galway) in March 2014 when just under 65% of ~3000 voters (out of 18,000 students) supported the anti-Israeli boycott. So, the turnout was a risible 16% meaning that in fact just over 10% voted for BDS. Hey! It’s better than the 1 in 14 that supported BDS in 2018 at TCD but that “increase in student outrage” is looking a lot like a DECREASE.
Meanwhile, there is a push on in DCU (Dublin City University) for students to hold a referendum on supporting the BDS campaign. There is no sign of opposition but it’s highly unlikely to be passed by a majority of students. Like the other referenda, it will likely be approved by just over half of a tiny minority.
The student population of a university is unlike any other voting population. The tiny minority who voted for BDS in 2014 in NUIG will have almost all left the university by now. So, what validity does this referendum still have? Also, student campuses should be places where – with certain limits on hate speech – open and courteous debate is tolerated. Sadly, this is rarely the case for anyone trying to challenge the anti-Israel narrative at Irish universities. The 2014 referendum at NUIG that was mentioned above was held in a nasty and intimidatory atmosphere. You may have already seen this footage of anti-Israel students shrieking and roaring at an anti-BDS speaker. At least he wasn’t physically attacked like the head of the Israel Society at Maynooth University.
Back in 2017, the (now closed) Irish4Israel group tried to get an article published rebutting outrageous inaccuracies in an interview that the UCC (University College, Cork) student magazine, Motley had done with pro-BDS academic, Professor James Bowen. As described here, the magazine’s editor prevaricated for nearly 2 weeks before refusing to publish Irish4Israel’s rebuttal for entirely spurious reasons. Then, there was the infamous incident at TCD – also in 2017 – when protesters from the self-styled Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) blockaded a venue where the Israeli ambassador had been due to speak. Such was the intimidatory nature of their behaviour that the event was cancelled due to concerns over His Excellency’s security.
Amidst all this anti-Israeli activity by a very small number of students, it would be easy to forget the 35-40% of student voters at NUIG and TCD who expressed opposition to boycotting Israel and Israelis. This figure is in line with a worldwide poll conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2014 which showed that 41% of Irish people had a positive view of Israel compared to 28% whose view was negative. So, when the UCD’s student newspaper, the College Tribune claims that “there is little to no pro-Israel presence on UCD campus”, this writer is inclined to wonder what such an assertion is based on. Is UCD unreflective of Irish society to a quite incredible degree or do those students who have pro-Israel views not feel free to express them? To ask it more starkly, given the stated stance of UCDSU, are pro-Israel students too scared of what the consequences might be?
The College Tribune article referenced above openly wonders if ACFI should be allowed any influence at all on campus. So, people with close ties to the university are suspect. However, it’s fine to allow external speakers with no ties to UCD (this example is just one of many) to come and speak on campus because UCDSU agrees with their views on the Israel-Palestine issue.
A group like ACFI can do much to counter unfair and untrue BDS propaganda on Irish campuses, and to support student campaigners who oppose BDS. In an atmosphere that can be hostile and even dangerous, they can convey the message that it’s okay to challenge the anti-Israel narrative. Any student publication that regards this as something to be opposed is setting a poor example for an academic environment. And any student who feels uncomfortable about having their views challenged should ask themselves if it’s because those views don’t stand up to scrutiny.
by Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh