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British Colleges Are Handling Protests Differently. Will It Pay Off?

Palestinian flags flew Thursday above two rows of orange and green tents at Cambridge University, where students read, talked and played chess in a small encampment to protest the war in Gaza.

There were no police officers in sight and there wasn’t much for them to do if they showed up, unless they wanted to join a wellness circle or a kite-making workshop.

Pro-Palestinian encampments have spread to 15 universities across Britain in recent days, but there are still few signs of the violent clashes that have rocked US campuses.

Part of the reason is that university authorities are taking a more permissive approach here, citing the importance of protecting free speech, even if the government is not entirely thrilled. about the protests. It may also reflect the less polarized debate in the United Kingdom, where polls suggest the majority of people think Israel should call a ceasefire.

At Oxford University, the atmosphere was more camping than confrontational, with around 50 tents pitched on a prominent green lawn outside the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Despite the sunny weather, wooden planks covered the grass, which in places had turned to mud when authorities turned on water sprinklers as a hostile greeting to the campers. (After discussions between the university and the students, the watering was stopped on Wednesday.)

Supplies of sunscreen, water, juice and hot drinks lined a table, while a whiteboard displayed a running list of needs: cups, spoons and paper plates.

“People keep saying, ‘It’s a festival, they’re having a good time,'” said Kendall Gardner, an American graduate student and protester. She categorically disputed this idea: “It’s very difficult, there’s a lot of hostility directed at us at all times; we’re running a miniature city and it’s not fun.

Ms. Gardner, 26, from Fishers, Indiana, went viral in a video interview with Al Jazeera this week, explaining why Oxford students are demanding the university divest from companies linked to the Israeli military. The interview has been viewed 15 million times on X, the social network.

Part of her motivation lies in her Jewish heritage, she said, pointing to what she described as a genocide in Gaza. “My Judaism is a big part of why I’m an activist,” she said. “When someone tells you, ‘It protects you’ – from dead babies – it’s indescribable, and I’m here to say, ‘No, that’s totally false.'”

Later in the afternoon – before a discussion on how to balance study and protest, a vigil to commemorate those who died in Gaza and some poetry readings – the Oxford students began to briefly sing: “ From the river to the sea, Palestine. will be free.” The phrase is seen by some supporters of Israel as a rallying cry for the country’s eradication and is the type of language that concerns groups like the Jewish Student Union, which claims to represent 9,000 Jewish students across Britain and Ireland.

Edward Isaacs, the group’s president, said this week that anti-Semitism had reached a “record high” at British universities and called on university leaders to “take swift and decisive action to safeguard Jewish life on campus.” “.

Partly in response to these concerns, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Conservative, summoned the heads of several universities to Downing Street on Thursday to discuss ways to combat anti-Semitism.

Gardner said Jewish students who oppose Israeli action in Gaza are themselves being targeted. “There was a lot of harassment against anti-Zionist Jewish students, calling them Nazis,” she said. “I get it all the time, people say to me: ‘You’re not a real Jew, you’re a fake Jew.’”

Rosy Wilson, 19, who studies politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and comes from Manchester in northern England, said she was reassured by the number of Jewish students at the camp who “consider this space as safe.”

Ms. Wilson, who had a copy of the philosopher Hegel’s works in her tent, described the routine of study, discussion and activism at the camp as “bittersweet.” “I’m really happy that while protesting something horrible, we were able to create a space that feels like a vision of a better world,” she said. “But I don’t think we should get caught up in that vision and forget why we’re here in the first place.”

Some experts warn that it is too early to judge whether Britain will avoid the violence and arrests seen on some US campuses.

“I wouldn’t say it couldn’t happen here,” said Feyzi Ismail, professor of global politics and activism at Goldsmiths, University of London, where protests have also taken place. “It depends on how the government accepts it, how much threat they feel towards the encampments, how long they exist and how they evolve.”

University authorities find themselves, Dr Ismail said, “in a difficult position: the more they crack down, the worse it’s going to get, and I think university leaders are well aware of that.”

In Britain, pro-Palestinian protesters have so far focused on large public marches, including those that take place regularly in London, rather than on campuses.

Sally Mapstone, president of Universities UK, which represents colleges, said Thursday that university officials “may have to take action” if protests interfere with campus life.

Some analysts believe this could happen if student behavior becomes more aggressive, or if protesters themselves are targeted by demonstrators opposed to them, such as at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Students said they believe they have been spared eviction from the encampments, both because British police tactics are less confrontational than in the United States and because university leaders want to avoid escalating the situation.

At the Oxford protest, where students received “de-escalation training,” a handful of police arrived each day and walked around the encampment, although participants were asked not to speak to them.

Amytess Girgis, 24, an Oxford graduate student from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said British police “are much less militarized than in the United States; In the United States, the way the police are trained and the way they are armed does not promote de-escalation.” She added that she thought British authorities probably saw what happened in the United States as a warning against police intervention.

In a statement, Oxford said it respected the “right to freedom of expression in the form of peaceful protest,” adding: “We ask that all those who participate do so with respect, courtesy and empathy.” »

Among those supporting the protests are more than 300 Cambridge university staff who have signed a public letter of solidarity.

“I think the students are well-meaning and peaceful,” said Chana Morgenstern, an Israeli citizen who is associate professor of postcolonial and Middle Eastern literature at Cambridge. “They are also quite open to conversation with people who disagree with them. I have seen some less progressive Jewish students come and speak to students, so I think this could be an opportunity to have an open public dialogue.

In Cambridge, where tourists were boating on the River Cam not far from the site of the student protest, disruption caused by the encampment has so far been minimal.

“It must be peaceful,” said Abbie Da Re, a visitor from Bury St. Edmunds, east of Cambridge, when asked about the encampment just 100 yards away. “I didn’t even hear it.”

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Gn world

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