July 19, 2024

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

There were no police officers in sight and not a lot for them to do if they did turn up, unless they felt like joining a wellness circle or a workshop on kite-making.

Pro-Palestinian encampments have spread to 15 universities across Britain in recent days, but there were few signs yet of the violent confrontations that have shaken American campuses.

That is partly because college authorities here are adopting a more permissive approach, 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 within Britain, where polls suggest the majority of people believe Israel should call a cease-fire.

At Oxford University, the vibe was more campsite than confrontation, with around 50 tents pitched on a prominent green lawn outside the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Despite the sunny weather, wooden boards covered grass that in places had churned to mud when the authorities turned on water sprinklers in an unfriendly greeting for the campers (after discussion between the university and the students, the sprinklers were 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 are having a jolly time,’” said Kendall Gardner, an American graduate student and protester. She disputed that idea emphatically: “This is very difficult, there is a lot of hostility being directed at us at all moments; we are running a miniature town, and this isn’t fun.”

Ms. Gardner, 26, who is from Fishers, Ind., went viral in a video interview with Al Jazeera this week, explaining why Oxford students are demanding that the university divest from companies linked to Israel’s military. The interview has been viewed 15 million times on X, the social media platform.

Part of her motivation is her Jewish heritage, she said, pointing to what she described as genocide in Gaza. “My Judaism is so much part of why I am an activist,” she said. “To have someone tell you, ‘This keeps you safe’ — dead babies — it’s indescribable, and I am here to say, ‘No, that’s totally wrong.’”

Later in the afternoon — before a discussion on how to balance studies with protest, a vigil to commemorate people who had died in Gaza and some poetry readings — the Oxford students broke into a brief chant of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The phrase is regarded by some supporters of Israel as a rallying cry for the eradication of the country and is the type of language that concerns groups like the Union of Jewish Students, which says it represents 9,000 Jewish students across Britain and Ireland.

Edward Isaacs, the group’s president, said this week that antisemitism had reached an “all-time high” in British colleges and called on university leaders to “deliver swift and decisive action to safeguard Jewish life on campus.”

Partly in response to those concerns, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Rishi Sunak, summoned the leaders of several universities to Downing Street on Thursday to discuss ways to tackle antisemitism.

Ms. Gardner said that Jewish students who oppose Israel’s action in Gaza are themselves being targeted. “There has been a lot of harassment of 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 is studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and comes from Manchester, in the north of England, said she was reassured by the number of Jewish students at the encampment who “consider this a space that is safe.”

Ms. Wilson, who had a copy of the works of the philosopher Hegel in her tent, described as “bittersweet” the routine of study, discussion and activism at the camp. “I am really glad that while protesting something horrific we have been 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 are here in the first place.”

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

“I wouldn’t say that couldn’t happen here,” said Feyzi Ismail, a lecturer in global policy and activism at Goldsmiths, University of London, where there have also been protests. “It depends how the government takes it, how threatening they feel the encampments are, how long they go on for and how they evolve.”

The university authorities are, Dr. Ismail said, “in a difficult position: The more they crack down, the more this will grow, and I think university leaders are well aware of that.”

In Britain, the focus of pro-Palestinian demonstrators until now has been on big public marches, including those seen regularly in London, rather than on campuses.

Sally Mapstone, the president of Universities U.K., which represents colleges, said on Thursday that university officials “may need to take action” if the protests interfere with life on campus.

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

Students said they believed they had been spared eviction from the encampments both because the tactics of British police are less confrontational than in the United States and because college leaders want to avoid inflaming the situation.

At the Oxford protest, where students have been offered “de-escalation training,” a handful of police officers arrive each day and walk around the encampment, although participants are urged not to speak to them.

Amytess Girgis, 24, a graduate student at Oxford from Grand Rapids, Mich., said that the police in Britain “are far less militarized than in the U.S.; the way the police are trained in the U.S. and the way that they are armed, it’s not conducive to de-escalation.” She added that she thought the British authorities had probably seen what happened in America as a warning against police intervention.

In a statement, Oxford said it respects the “right to freedom of expression in the form of peaceful protests,” adding, “We ask everyone who is taking part to do so with respect, courtesy and empathy.”

Those backing the protests include more than 300 academic staff at Cambridge who have signed a public letter in solidarity.

“I do think the students are well intentioned and peaceful,” said Chana Morgenstern, an Israeli citizen who is an associate professor in post-colonial and Middle Eastern literature at Cambridge. “They are pretty open to conversation with people who don’t agree with them as well. I’ve seen less progressive Jewish students in faculty come in to talk to the students, so I think this could be an opportunity to have an open public dialogue.”

In Cambridge, where tourists cruised the River Cam on punts not far from the student protest, disruption from 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 hadn’t even heard it.”


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