Students at UAL have been rallying to show solidarity with the people of Palestine, but reactions from the university have sown disappointment.
The brutal Israeli campaign on Palestinians in both the besieged Gaza strip and the West Bank has so far killed tens of thousands of civillians in a matter of months, with far more injured, displaced, or missing.
On top of these genocidal conditions, Palestinians are also deprived of access to food, water, medical supplies, and more life-saving essentials. Many students at UAL have reported being affected by the gravity of the persistent loss, including for personal reasons.
It comes as no surprise, then, that students across the country have been rallying to demonstrate solidarity, and urging their universities to join them in showing public support for a ceasefire.
However, those at UAL have felt “stifled, stereotyped, and ignored,” and have expressed disdain for the university’s responses to both on-site activism and the ongoing genocide.
At a university that “believes passionately in academic freedom and freedom of expression,” it is concerning that police action is something that has come up as a response to ceasefire demonstrations.
Following action at Central Saint Martins, students were warned that the common chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” could be perceived as unlawful hate speech, and the threat of police action was made to anyone chanting or displaying it.
The justification made by CSM Dean of Academic Strategy, Allan Atlee, was that the university has adopted the definition of antisemitism as set out by the IHRA. In 2023, over 100 international civil society organisations urged the United Nations not to adopt this definition.
This is because of concerns that it “has often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism.” Evidently, the conflation of Judaism and Zionism is problematic for many across the world.
With no apparent legal requirement to do so, this is nonetheless how UAL has chosen to define antisemitism. In spite of this, students from Jewish, Islamic, Christian, and other religious and non religious backgrounds have all taken part in demonstrations to show solidarity with a population suffering.
In this same meeting with Allan Atlee, female students recount feeling undermined by comments he made. “He continuously tried to end the conversation by saying we should talk about this again when we are all less emotional. With the exception of one, the meeting was entirely made up of young women,” they describe.
“Labelling women as ’emotional’ when having political discussions (implies) that we are not thinking rationally enough to have legitimate points. Additionally, being outraged and appalled by our institution’s financial support and complicity in an ongoing genocide is a completely legitimate response — what should actually be questioned is his apathy.”
Artefact contacted Allan Atlee for comment, but a spokesperson for declined the invitation.
Apathy to the devastation of the situation is another view of UAL’s response that has drawn criticism and left members of the community feeling ignored.
Often the case, it feels, is that institutions and politicians have eluded expressing support for a ceasefire, opting instead to describe Israel and Palestine as too complex and contentious to take a stance on.
In an email sent on November 23, 2023 following pressure for the university to speak out against the violence, President and Vice Chancellor of UAL James Purnell deemed it inappropriate for UAL to make an institutional public statement of that kind.
His reasoning was that UAL requires expertise and consensus from academic experts to be able to speak with the authority supposedly needed to call for a ceasefire.
To one student, the glaring implication here is that expressing that Palestinians have the right to live free from the current brutality is cause for controversy. “The email that was sent to the student body last year felt like a cop-out,” they say.
“It’s even worse when you remember how quick and concise they were in their condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He mentioned a lot about offering care and support to staff and students, but my question is, what kind of care and support can we expect from a university unwilling to publicly place value in Palestinian lives?”
The UAL’s statement on Ukraine was issued by the University on February 28, 2022, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Here, UAL takes a clear stance: “We deplore and condemn the war in Ukraine. Our thoughts are with all whose friends and family are affected by this human tragedy. We will do everything possible to help students and staff navigate the emotional and financial impact of the conflict.”
James Purnell joined UAL as President and Vice Chancellor in 2021, following a career in politics as the Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, and subsequently a senior role at the BBC. His well-documented political support for Israel is something that hangs over the perception of the university’s responses to the situation in Palestine.
During his time in Parliament, James Purnell was chairman of Labour Friends of Israel for two years. In a 2002 opinion piece for The Guardian, he described the Israeli-West Bank apartheid wall as “doveish move, which recognises the legitimacy of two states, and seeks a less bloody way of controlling terrorism.”
As well as this, voting records show that James Purnell consistently supported the war in Iraq. To students, his actions feel incompatible with UAL’s claimed intention to “challenge colonial and imperial legacies” through pursuits such as the UAL Decolonising Arts Institute.
Furthermore, students are seeking more financial transparency from UAL as it relates to where surplus is spent. This comes following the circulation of information that connects the university to Israeli financial interests through several corporate partnerships.
“Through its partnerships with PUMA, Kornit, LVMH, L’Oréal, and many other Israeli or Israel-affiliated companies and institutions, including Israel Oceanographic And Limnological Research, Shenkar Engineering and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, UAL is a willing accomplice in Israel’s regime of occupation, apartheid, and ongoing genocide,” students explain.
They go on to say that UAL “attempts to craft an environment of silence and censorship within each campus, and to censor the voices of UAL students and staff who have refused to normalise the institution’s complicity with Israel’s violations of international law. If UAL does not divest from the companies and institutions mentioned above, it will continue to fund the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.”
On the official website for University of the Arts London, there is a page titled Social Purpose. On this page, the university sets out to define its identity as an institution, with the goals and an implementation plan stated.
According to their Chief Social Purpose Officer: “We see crisis all around us. We know about the climate emergency, we know about racial and social injustice everywhere we look, and we have an incredible opportunity as a university where knowledge is both created and shared to be part of the solution.”
As members of an institution with an apparent pride in its social awareness and desire to facilitate change, UAL students have been disheartened by the pushback they have faced against their demonstrations.
UAL’s leaders have had months to familiarise themselves with the concerns that students have. With each day that passes, and each report of needless suffering and death in Palestine, people across the globe remain steadfast in their calls for a permanent ceasefire.
Questions remain, however, as to whether or not the university is willing to practically apply the values it espouses. Does calling for an end to the indiscriminate slaughter of Palestinian civilians not align with the university’s aim of creating a better world?
We approached the university for comment on the questions raised by the students; a spokesperson for University of the Arts London gave the following statement:
“UAL leadership has been closely monitoring the conflict in Israel and Gaza, remaining focused on the wellbeing of our staff and students. It is dialogue, reflection, as well as our legal obligations, that informs our response to conflict and something we keep under careful review.
“This is an evolving and complex situation and we continue to engage with student and staff faith groups and societies to offer ongoing support.
“As set out in our Freedom of Speech policy and recent communication to students, UAL believes universities are forums for open and respectful exchange, enabling diverse views to be expressed and debated constructively.
“We strive for a culture where all community members can share their opinions and perspectives within a safe, tolerant, and inclusive environment.
“We passionately believe in academic and free speech within the law, and strongly support peaceful assembly on our campus. This commitment has led us to facilitate various events, posters, and protests.
“Our vital role is upholding lawful freedom of speech for everyone while ensuring a safe community. To maintain this, we reserve the right to take appropriate action against any violence, threats, harassment, intimidation, disruption, or obstruction of movement on campus.”
Featured image via UAL student, flyers by @flyers_for_falastin.