BDS: The boycott Israel movement spreading across UK universities

Human rights group faces accusations of anti-Semitism on British campuses

Boycott Israel
(Image credit: Ahmed Gharabli/Getty)

The Charity Commission has announced it will investigate allegations that student unions are breaking rules by backing the BDS movement, which calls for an international boycott of Israel over the fate of Palestinians.

It follows claims that BDS has fuelled a rise in anti-Semitism on university campuses.

So what is BDS – and is it anti-Semitic?

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What do the initials stand for?

BDS is short for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. The group calls for a boycott of Israeli businesses and academics, for investors in Israeli firms to divest themselves of their holdings and for sanctions to be imposed on Israel itself.

Where did BDS originate?

The movement was founded in Palestine by NGOs in 2005 and has now gone global. The idea was to copy the global anti-Apartheid movement that applied pressure on South Africa to drop its racist policies. The group says it is "inclusive and categorically opposes as a matter of principle all forms of racism". However, detractors have compared it to Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses.

Which UK universities back BDS?

BDS was first backed by London's SOAS students' union in 2015 and since then another 15 students' unions have followed suit. According to the BBC, these include Belfast, Birkbeck, Brunel, Essex, Exeter, Goldsmiths, Kings College London, Kingston, Lancashire, Liverpool, Manchester, SOAS, Strathclyde, Sussex, Swansea, University of Arts London and UCL.

Why is it controversial?

Some Jewish student claim the support for BDS has caused a rise in anti-Semitism.

Devora Khafi, a student at Queen Mary University of London, told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme that she felt intimidated on campus and had been targeted for abuse.

She said: "If you look behind the BDS lens, it calls for these things that are not peaceful. They harm Jewish students and pro-Israel students and they don't support a peaceful atmosphere on campus."

Ayesha Abbasi, the co-president of SOAS university, told the BBC: "We have had no formal complaints of anti-Semitism or bullying from any Jewish students since the BDS referendum".

Why is the Charity Commission investigating?

Students' unions have been re-defined as registered charities since 2010, which means they have a legal duty to represent the interests of all their members and are required to limit public comment to issues that affect their members' welfare as students. The BBC says complaints about these issues have been raised with the Charity Commission.

David Holdsworth of the Charity Commission says student unions must not discriminate against students "of a particular faith or race". The commission says it will assess links to the BDS movement "consistently" and if necessary "take regulatory action".

Are any Jewish students in favour of BDS?

Yes. Sai Englert, a Jewish PhD student at SOAS and a member of the university's Palestine Society, told the BBC: "The idea that somehow supporting BDS, supporting boycott etc is a blanket boycott on individuals I think is very dangerous. It's not.

"It's about saying we don't want institutional links, economic links, political links with institutions, governments, companies that are complicit in attacks on rights."

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