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Howard Anglin: Inside Oxford’s own intifada, where Palestinian struggle is everything (and nothing, and whatever you want it to be)

Commentary

Tents are set up by pro-Palestinians students outside the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, in England, Thursday, May 9, 2024. Kin Cheung/AP Photo.

Oxford’s protest camp is waking up. Last night the wind blew the rain sideways, shaking the sides of the tents and knocking on door flaps. It is still raining this morning, but now it is coming straight down. Water pools on tarps and runs down painted canvas signs. Makeshift walkways of cardboard and wooden crates sink into the brown mud. Mud that is slowly taking over as the remaining patches of grass shrink after each rainfall. Yellow straw spread to absorb the damp has been trampled brown. Nothing is dry. The woman at the welcome table tells me that someone from the media tent would be happy to talk to me, but there is no one there right now. I tell her I will come back another day.

* * *

The camp has six demands, which are hand-written on a cloth banner at the entrance:

“DISCLOSE ALL FINANCES”

“DIVEST FROM ISRAEL GENOCIDE APARTHEID AND OCCUPATION”

“OVERHAUL UNIVERSITYS [sic] INVESTMENT POLICY”

“BOYCOTT ISRAELI GENOCIDE APARTHEID AND OCCUPATION”

“STOP BANKING WITH BARCLAYS”

“SUPPORT PALESTINIAN-LED REBUILDING OF EDUCATION IN GAZA”

There are other signs around the camp:

“Welcome to the People’s University for Palestine”

“Oxford Men Wrote Balfour – Divest Now!”

“Jews For a Free Palestine”

“Israel Has Destroyed Every University in Gaza”

“From the Revolutionaries of Sudan to the Revolutionaries of Palestine Rights for the Homeland Are Taken Not Given”

“Liberated Zone”

A small banner hanging from the welcome tent shows a map of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank as one territory under a keffiyeh in the colours of the Palestinian flag.

* * *

The camp posts a daily schedule of events on a whiteboard. At four o’clock there is a teach-in about “Anti-Zionism vs Anti-Semitism” hosted by four Jewish students. They talk about the threat of the far-Right. They say the reported rise in antisemitism is misleading because it conflates antisemitism with anti-Zionism and the official statistics are a construct of powerful forces at play in the mainstream Jewish community. They talk about how their exclusion from mainstream Jewish institutions as anti-Zionists is also a form of antisemitism. They say that the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which the university has endorsed, is a problem and wonder what they can do about it.

One of the panellists, an American graduate student, says that it is important to remember that resistance is at the heart of the Jewish story. “I believe that my Jewishness is what makes me stand against oppression everywhere,” she says. “There are so many like sick revolutionary Jewish voices specifically in like leftist circles that have been doing this—my favourite holiday is Passover—I just held a Pesach—it was really amazing and beautiful and like the whole point of the Seder is freedom and liberation and I made my—I always make my Seders about Palestine because that is the issue of our lifetime of freedom and liberation and that is what Judaism and Jewishness means for me.”

Hamas is not mentioned. Iran is not mentioned. Antisemitism on the political Left and at the UN is not mentioned. Antisemitism at elite universities is not mentioned. October 7th is not mentioned.

A few Jewish students who are not part of the camp have gathered outside the fence to listen, and after a few minutes some of them enter the camp to speak. The panellists welcome them and give them the microphone. The first one speaks:

“I have to say I’m quite disappointed by this event,” he begins, “because a lot of the attention in this discussion has been about how anti-Zionist Jews are excluded from Jewish spaces–and I regret that and I try to combat that and hopefully some of the people in this circle know that–but the last time that I checked—I think this was a poll in 2023—eight out of ten Jews in the U.K. were Zionist—and since October 7th I think the cases of antisemitism have increased by something like 589 per cent—something insane, right? So, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of cases of antisemitism are cases that haven’t been talked about today in this discussion. What I was hoping for in this discussion was that we would talk about some of the ways that the anti-Zionist camp could do better to prevent antisemitism. I haven’t seen any of that today. And I myself have experienced—certainly from anti-Zionists walking down the street in the last few weeks—I’ve experienced antisemitic incidents. I guess I don’t really have a question so much as expressing disappointment and a hope that in the future there will be more of a focus on actually combatting antisemitism against not just anti-Zionist Jews—that’s important but it’s really a minority of Jews—so I hope that antisemitism gets taken seriously.”

The second outsider speaks:

“What we’ve seen is the anti-Zionists focusing exclusively on the antisemitism they’ve experienced and anti-Zionists minimising and saying that cases of antisemitism are exaggerated. That is nonsense. I walk around with a yarmulke on my head—I’ve experienced tons of antisemitism I never experienced before—but the fact that you are doing that is minimising our experience. And I came here to hear what you had to say—I thought I would be disappointed—I’m actually shocked—I think it’s disgraceful … I mean, the guy talked earlier about how in the IHRA definition some instances of anti-Zionism are called antisemitism—well that’s because those are the instances of anti-Zionism that specifically try to equate Jews to Nazis to torment Jews about the Nazi genocide against them—which is unacceptable. You guys are upset about that because you want to equate Jews with Nazis because a lot of you are antisemitic—so thank you.”

As he finishes, some of the crowd of about 30 breaks into a chant of “Free, Free, Palestine!”

* * *

I interview a camp spokesman, a student in his mid-20s. He is very friendly and generous with his time. What he tells me is reproduced in part below, interspersed with descriptions of other events. I have made minor edits for clarity.

I ask the camp spokesman if there is anything he would like the public to know about the camp that they might not be aware of.

“I would say there’s a couple different ones that I’ve been thinking a lot about. One is you see a lot in the university statements that we are violent protesters or we are causing people to feel unsafe, which I really don’t think we are. I think on the actual facts, we are not violent.

“So for example, when there was a sit-in [in a university administration building]. There was this image painted by the Vice Chancellor’s emails that they’d broken in and assaulted the receptionist and all of these things that are simply not true. Students had walked into the building, you know, they had told the receptionist a group of us are going to go in for a sit in, we just want you to know that this is not something that is targeted against you or any other individuals, but we’re having a sit in in the Vice Chancellor’s office and it’s to start negotiations …

“I think the other thing, too, is often the allegation of antisemitism is thrown out, and I think that is something that I find very disappointing. You know, a lot of our members of the encampment are Jewish, and I know that that doesn’t necessarily mean a movement isn’t antisemitic, but the goal is never any sort of, I don’t know, it’s not like there’s calls for, we want all Jews removed from Palestine, because that’s not what our movement is calling for.”

* * *

Laura Butcher is a Jewish student in her fourth year of a bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages (French and Italian). She tells iNews that:

“The past eight months have delivered a painful lesson in ostracism to Jewish students, like me. Some college mates no longer look at us, students who used to say hello or meet our gaze in the street do not bother; some even turn away. Several friends, once heavily involved in the social life of their colleges and departments, have had course-mates no longer answer emails or block them on social media, like pariahs.

“Walking past the encampments—dozens of tents that now block access to two separate locations at the centre of campus—a friend wearing a kippah (Jewish skullcap) was warned by private security that his presence is provocative. Others have been told to go back to America, no matter if their families are of North African, Middle Eastern or other descent.”

* * *

An Oxford student writes (anonymously) for the Guardian:

“Our Jewish Society president had the mezuzah (a protective Jewish prayer scroll) ripped from his door. At a freshers’ event, one Jewish friend told me that she was called a ‘coloniser’ and ‘race traitor’ (the latter by virtue of her non-European descent). I know male students who have removed their kippot (skullcaps) and others who have hidden their Stars of David. On Instagram, I saw students posting pictures of paragliders, celebrating Hamas’s massacre. …

“University societies do not announce Jewish events publicly; we have increased security on our doors. Safety concerns are also why I have remained anonymous in this piece, and why there are places where demonstrations gather three times a week that I avoid altogether. …

“When someone shouts ‘Free Palestine’ at a Jew walking around Oxford wearing his kippah, as happened to a friend of mine, they are weaponizing that idea against him. …

“The psychological toll is huge: I do not sleep well and cry often.”

* * *

A Jewish graduate student reports asking a former student about accommodation in Oxford for next year and being told to try Israel, as there is “plenty of free land there apparently—as long as you’re not an Arab.”

In a teach-in, an Oxford professor says that “What happened on October 7th was justified, and I understand where it was coming from.”

An Israeli student is called a “Zionist Nazi.”

Another student is told that “Jews control the American government,” that “Jews are everywhere,” and that she “has a Jewish nose.”

* * *

I tell the camp spokesman that I have heard from Jewish and Israeli students that the camps and the rallies have made them feel unsafe, and I ask him what his response is.

“There are certain chants where I think there’s a certain disagreement. So, for example, ‘From the River to the Sea’ is one where, you know, some students will say it’s antisemitic. I think I personally don’t see that as antisemitism because when I chant ‘From the River to the Sea,’ you know, ‘Palestine will be free,’ for me, it’s not about mass expulsion. … Because, you know, one student had said to me that, ‘Oh, it’s a call to push all Jewish people in Israel into the ocean.’ And I said, no, that is not what I am advocating for at all.

“I advocate for equal rights, and I advocate for a fully democratic society in which everyone is able to have political participation. I think what the actual structure of a state or a government would look like, that’s a separate question that I genuinely don’t have a solution to. But, for me, it’s a call for equality and freedom for the people in that land who don’t have equal rights and equal access to political freedoms.”

I ask about the use of the word “intifada,” particularly in light of the Second Intifada’s campaign of suicide bombings that were designed to derail the Oslo peace process. I ask if it’s reasonable for Israeli students to hear calls for intifada as a call for violence.

“Yeah, I guess so for me personally, I see it as, you know, just the Arabic word for uprising, in the same way that you’ll see any uprising labelled as ‘intifada’ when you translate it into Arabic. I don’t see it as necessarily a violent thing. I often compare it to the term revolution, where people are always calling for revolution everywhere, all the time, in this context, other contexts, and that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘Oh, everyone take up arms and start murdering civilians,’ because that is not what we’re advocating for at all. … But then, I mean, I can certainly understand, you know, why especially some Israeli students see it as a call to violence, but that is not what we’re advocating for. You know, we’re not violent, we’re not calling for violence.”

Going back to the “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” chant, I note that it is in Hamas’s Charter, where it is used with clear genocidal intent. I ask why, if you don’t mean it that way, you would risk confusing your goals with Hamas’s goals.

“Yeah, I guess I would say when it comes to, for example, the Hamas Charter, I wouldn’t necessarily want the phrase to only be associated with Hamas. You know, it seems unreasonable to me, at least, to say, okay, Hamas has now taken this term, so nobody can use it again. …  I mean, I think these slogans have been around for so long, and I guess for me, personally, I wouldn’t want to give those up just because a group that I disagree with personally is using them as well. And I think that kind of as a … I’m trying to think of how to best phrase this, but I guess I just, I wouldn’t want that to be taken away necessarily.”

The camp has several posters criticising Israel and a lot of the chants focus on Israel. I ask why there is nothing criticising Hamas. If the camp’s concern is for the people in Gaza, why is everything directed at Israel and nothing at the people who have actually been running Gaza directly for the last 17 years, diverting aid to build tunnels and rockets and military capacity?

“Yeah, I guess the first thing is, I would say most of us have the priority that we need to stop the actual bombing right now. You know, it’s hard to really talk about political solutions when there is what we see as a genocide happening.

“And I think, you can have these types of debates and discussions about, you know, who would be the best political party to represent Palestinians, what that should look like, and do Palestinians know something that we don’t in terms of who would best govern them? I think that’s something that can only really be answered after any sort of war actually ends. So I think first and foremost, we are really an anti-war movement specifically about ending this phase of the broader Israel-Palestine conflict.

“As an organisation that has really only just sprung up in the last month, our goal is not, ‘Oh, I want to create the solution for Israel and Palestine.’ And I think generally when people from Oxford have attempted to create solutions in the Middle East, you know, they’ve often gone very poorly.”

* * *

The call goes out on the Oxford Action for Palestine Signal channel:

“WELLINGTON SQUARE NOW GUYS!!! ppl are getting arrested v forcefully for having done nothing, we need support!! (obv u won’t be arrested for standing and chanting) PLS COME!!!”

* * *

There is no precise moment when a crowd becomes a mob, but you can feel it happen. A large crowd has gathered outside the university administration’s squat brutalist building on Wellington Square. They are chanting: “40,000 people dead … you’re arresting kids instead.”

More than a dozen protesters have infiltrated the building, reportedly shoving aside a security guard (the protesters would later deny this) to occupy the vice chancellor’s office. They have hung a banner from one of the office windows listing their six demands, with a newly added seventh: “Amnesty for all involved.” The building has been evacuated and I count more than forty officers stationed outside the entrances and more than 20 police cars in the square outside.

The protesters are running frantically from one entrance to the other as rumours spread that the arrested students are being removed from the building. Some students form a human chain blocking the police access to and from the building. Others sit on the ground blocking vehicle access. When the police need to get through, they simply move the students with a matter-of-fact application of force that treats the students as a physical barrier to where they need to go. The protesters will later call this police violence. Some of the building’s maintenance staff stand apart from the crowd, smoking and drinking coffee, watching.

I see an elderly man wearing a kippah standing at the edge of the chanting crowd, hesitating. I ask him if he needs to walk through, and he says he does. I try to reassure him, “I think their bark is worse than their bite,” but he says “it’s still intimidating.” I say I’ll walk with him through. It takes maybe thirty seconds to get through the crowd and no one pays much attention to us. I wonder what the students would say if they knew how this old man felt. I like to think they’d be a little remorseful, but I don’t know. This is the environment they have created.

The next day the Oxford Mail reports that seventeen protesters were arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass and affray.

* * *

There is a sign at the camp calling for a ceasefire, but none that calls for a ceasefire and freeing the hostages. I ask why the camp has not called for freeing the Israeli hostages held in Gaza, which could help produce the ceasefire the camp wants.

“I think kind of what I had said before, where the focus really is trying to say, you know, stop the bombing—that’s even a chant that you’ll often hear: ‘One, we are the people, two, we won’t be silenced, three, stop the bombing now, now, now, now.’ I think what’s also hard is that the hostages have really been used as a kind of political weapon in particular by the state of Israel.

I interject—They’re being used by Hamas as a political weapon. Kidnapping is a war crime. Hostage taking is a war crime.

“Yeah, and I mean, I don’t like the strategies that were taken by Hamas. I don’t think that this was necessarily the best thing to do, you know, or even an acceptable thing to do. I just flat out think it was wrong. I’m opposed to the murder of all innocent civilians. I’m opposed to the hostage taking of innocent civilians, you know.”

I interrupt again—then why don’t you see anything at the camp that says that?

“Yeah, I mean, I think what’s hard is that you don’t also see that on the other side either, you know, with, even supposedly more liberal Zionists, you know, we don’t necessarily see their organisations calling for the end to these types of legal systems that are essentially leading Palestinians to be living under what I would describe as an apartheid state. …

“And from my perspective in the encampment, I understand why maybe there are no ‘free the hostage’ type posters, because it is moving the rhetorical ground to, okay, we’re no longer talking anymore about the Palestinians being killed and it becomes this, ‘Oh, but you need to free the hostages first’ where it’s like, well, that’s not necessarily what I think the order has to be.

“The people who are hostages, I don’t want them to be hostages, you know, I want them to be released. But then I don’t want that to be the precondition for everything else that we’re arguing for. And, I would like to see, for example, a ceasefire in which there is some sort of release of all detainees. That is something that I very strongly personally believe in. But then I think often it’s being weaponized by people who are not necessarily engaging in good faith. …

“I mean, hmm, how do I say this, you’ll often see, for example, the Israeli ambassador to the U.K., all she’ll talk about are the hostages, but then she’ll never talk about, oh, are we going to do anything to prevent, for example, these new torture camps that are being revealed in CNN reporting and other mainstream media outlets. … And so I think that when it becomes about just this select group of hostages, I think for many people, including myself, it feels like, well, what about the Palestinians who have been detained years and years and years before October 7th?”

* * *

It is a week after the attempted occupation of the vice chancellor’s office and the crowd is back at Wellington Square. Last week’s protest was spontaneous; this week it is bigger and better organised.  There are at least two hundred protesters and there is the feel of a rave or a rock concert. Or primal scream therapy. The crowd is pulsing with emotion. In the middle, surrounding the chant-leader, the inner circle wears masks and white shirts with hand-written slogans. The one I can make out reads: “How can I sit and study / my tuition is blood money.”

The chant leader begins.

“From the river to the sea …” she drones through her bullhorn and the crowd responds in the sonorous sing-song of senseless repetition, “Pal-es-ti-ine will be free.”

Warmed up, they move on: “Oxford all through history … committed to complicity!”

Each chant is repeated at least twice. The chant leader paces in the inner circle and each time she bellows through her bullhorn the crowd responds.

She crouches to chant “Down! Down! with occupation” and leaps up to join the crowd in the response “Up! Up! with liberation!”

She builds a rhythm and the crowd gets louder and faster. Its movements become more agitated, chanting and moving as one.

“ONE … we are the people

TWO … we won’t be silent

THREE  … stop the bombing NOW NOW NOW NOW!”

She speeds up even more and the crowd follows, shaking with the beat.

“1, 2, 3, 4 … occupation no more! 5, 6, 7, 8 … Israel is a terror state!”

She repeats the last line as its own chant, each time a little louder and higher.

“Israel is a … terror state!”

“Israel is a … terror state!”

“Israel is a … terror state!”

One more time, swinging her keffiyeh, her voice breaking with the strain, “ISRAEL IS A … TERROR STATE!!”

Wailing now, frenzied.

“What do we want … liberation!

When do we want it … now!

What do we do if we don’t get it … SHUT THE UNI DOWN!!”

Over and over.

SHUT THE UNI DOWN!!

Maenads.

I think about the man I escorted through the crowd last week. If he were here today there would be no way through the crowd. Even if there were, the intimidation would be so much worse. The crowd has a carnival feeling, riotous and unruly. Emotion is a volatile compound.

* * *

I ask why this conflict? There have been hundreds of thousands of people killed in Syria and in Yemen, but no camps. And if you are concerned about how the university invests its endowment, what about Chinese companies that are involved in repression of Uyghurs or Tibetans or religious minorities? Why isn’t this a bigger campaign about divesting from all these states?

“I think, hmm, I would say at least with students in the encampment, including myself, you know, there are personal connections to this where, you know, I look at my neighbours, for example, and I think about their families and their family stories. Whereas, unfortunately, I am less informed about some other world conflicts. And what’s been really great about this encampment is that it’s been a starting point to learn about others.

“So at the previous camp, at the Pitt Rivers Museum, there was actually the Sudan flag that you would see also flown. And that was not accidental. … Or, there was another student who, you know, when it came to how do you protect against surveillance, had mentioned this is what we did in Hong Kong to prevent surveillance. So I think … I would see it as part of a broader global movement and, I hope to continue advocating for human rights around the world.

“I can’t say necessarily why has there has not been an encampment for other causes. I don’t know, but I know that the Palestinian cause has been many, many decades long. And it’s been very salient for quite a lot of people partially because it’s been ongoing, you know, for goodness, at least 76 years …

“I see it as part of a broader global movement, but then also a starting point for many of our students who are, some of them are only 19, you know. But yeah, there have been plenty of teach-ins on a variety of global issues. Sudan has, I think, been maybe one of the biggest ones. They had a big bake sale at one point fundraising for relief in Sudan …

“There’s a kind of trite phrase that I sometimes disagree with, but it’s ‘Palestine is setting us free as well.’ I think there is an element of truth. Palestine is setting us all free. Yeah. … I know that people maybe derisively say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s a TikTok kind of thing,’ but it’s true. … I think you see these types of images and you go, oh my god, how is this allowed to happen? And then you start looking into ‘Wait, is it my country that’s also helping fund this type of military conflict?’ I go, ‘Well, that’s not okay.’ And I think it’s been a starting point, you know, for many students, including myself.”

* * *

“We have launched camp because we believe another world is possible. We insist on it.”

“النضال الفلسطيني كان وسيبقى النضال الذي نقتدي به، وسيحررنا جميعاً”

“The Palestinian struggle was and will always remain. We look to the Palestinian struggle; it will free us all.”

These lines are from the camp’s online manifesto.

It’s a curious set of phrases. “Another world is possible” is just the utopian idealism of protest movements throughout history, but the last lines run through my mind. Liberating Gaza is self-liberation. I am reminded of a chant I’ve heard from the protesters. “In our thousands in our millions … we are all Palestinians.”

Gaza is out there and Gaza is inside us. If we free Gaza we free ourselves. But freedom is impossible. “The Palestinian struggle was and will always remain.” Welcome to the liberated zone, which can never be liberated. There is only oppressor and oppressed. To become free is to become unoppressed. To be unoppressed is to be the oppressor. To become free without becoming oppressors, that is the challenge. To liberate without liberating. The struggle was and will always remain. Palestine is the struggle. We are Palestine. We are the struggle. Only Palestine matters. Only the struggle matters. Only we matter, and we will remain.

* * *

Some Jewish students have organised late night outings to counter the proliferation of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist posters and stickers on lamp posts, rubbish bins, utility boxes, and notice boards around Oxford. Across the city, new posters and stickers appear on top of Oxford Action for Palestine’s posters.

The new posters say:

“Say No to Intifada”

“Act Against Hate / Before It’s Too Late”

“How Would You Feel If / Your Sister’s Rape / Was Excused By Your JCR”

“From the River to the Sea, Only Peace Will Set Us Free”

* * *

I ask, if Israel were to unilaterally withdraw and stop bombing right now, what do you think would happen, and what would you hope would happen?

“I guess, I don’t know what would happen just because I can’t even imagine it happening. As maybe depressing as that, maybe pessimistic as that might sound. … You know, certainly I think making good on certain promises around a two state solution would be a great starting point. That would be somewhere where we can say, ‘Okay, there is now potentially good faith dialogue that could begin.’ I think, if I were a Palestinian, you know, I still would want certain things like the right of return, and that’s something that I personally say should happen.

“And I understand there are certain arguments against this, including what it means to have a demographic majority for Jewish people in Israel. And I guess, to me personally, it’s hard for me to hear these types of arguments and not think about the United States. You know, when people sometimes say, ‘Oh, we want a white majority country.’ And ‘What happens if, you know, the white majority is not there? Are we really the U.S. anymore?’ And I’m like, yeah, of course, of course we are.”

“I think in a better world, if we could assume that everyone is acting in good faith, I don’t see why something like the right of return should be off the table. I don’t see why Palestinians shouldn’t be able to return to Palestine or the modern state of Israel, with even these current borders, you know, why shouldn’t they be able to come back to their homes?

“In the same way that I look at, for example, the Jewish right to return to Israel, and I don’t have a problem with that personally. You know, I think that that is in some ways a very beautiful thing to be able to say, ‘I’m returning to my homeland.’ You know, I would like to see that also extended to Palestinian refugees. So, my own kind of dream vision would be this kind of, I don’t know, call it a one state democracy, I guess, where it is all of these people being able to live together and coexist. And it is very idealistic, you know.”

That’s great, but what you’re describing is America, or the U.K. or Canada. You’re describing a certain type of developed, mostly Western pluralistic democracy, and I know that many Israelis’ response would be: “Show me where in the Middle East that’s ever worked for us.” Nine hundred thousand Jews had to flee Arab countries in the 20th century. Thousands of year old communities had to flee. So why should they trust that if you create another Arab majority state, this one will be safe for them?

“Mm, I think when I think of these comparisons to the U.S. or the U.K. or Canada, I think these countries weren’t always like this either. You know, it’s not true that the United States has always been a welcoming place, and in some parts of the U.S. and for many groups of people, it’s not a welcoming place today. So I try not to draw these lines of, oh, you know, a Western democracy could do this, but not any other type of country…

“I think a lot about South Africa, where I’m not an expert, but one of the things that has been inspiring to me about South Africa is that post-apartheid there is a building of what a multiracial South Africa could look like. And I think that such a case could certainly happen in historic Palestine. Whatever, you know, this kind of solution ends up looking like, I don’t think that it’s out of the bounds of reality to build that world.”

I mention that I’d walked by the original camp outside the Pitt Rivers Museum and that it’s almost totally empty.

“Yeah, so we’ve moved our resources here. … This camp was supposed to be an escalation from the previous camp because it was originally set up with the goal of starting negotiations. We said we would close it if you start negotiations. But now we’ve been here for so many weeks, that offer is no longer on the table. … And it’s like, well, guess what? We gave you ample opportunities to open negotiations, and we would have packed all this and gone back to the previous camp, and that would have been all fine and good. And we were really expecting the university to do that, but then they didn’t. So it’s sort of like, well, guess we’re here.”

* * *

Less than a week after my interview, I hear that some protesters have occupied part of the university’s Examination Schools building and are chanting while students are writing their end-of-term exams.

From the camp’s Signal group:

“!!!
An autonomous
group have occupied
a hall in east schools,
they need support
outside exam schools
ASAP”

When I arrive, there are about twenty protesters across from the entrance to the building. I recognise most of them from the camps, including the spokesman I’d interviewed. Some protesters have occupied a room on the second floor of the building where they are chanting and drumming and, it sounds like, banging on tables or chairs. It’s the usual litany of chants. A bigger crowd of students in their black robes is waiting to enter for the afternoon exams. Most of them are absorbed with last-minute cramming, their eyes on their notes, ignoring the clamour.

Occasionally an occupier appears at an open window. One of them, her face uncovered and a keffiyeh around her neck, hangs a Palestinian flag and banners that say “Free Palestine” and “All Eyes on Rafa.” A student with her head and lower face covered with white cloth appears at another window. She has tied a bucket to a long rope and is trying to lower it while also swinging it out over a metal barricade about 20 feet from the bottom of the building. When she finally succeeds, some of the protesters outside rush across the street to load the bucket with supplies before she hauls it back up to the window. The university security guards stand placidly a few feet away, watching.

One of the protesters in the street calls up to the woman wearing the keffiyeh and asks how the occupiers are doing.

“We’re in pretty good spirits.”

There are cheers and a shout of “We love you!” from below.

“The fire safety marshal came and spoke to us, asked us to take down our barricade, et cetera.”

She turns to the others inside and asks, “Temperature check?” I can’t hear the response, but she reports back through the window, “Yeah, thank you so much, you guys, honestly, thank you, thank you.”

Another ‘We love you!” from below and more cheers and clapping. Someone asks, “Do you have access to bathrooms?”

The woman at the window laughs. “We’re about to discuss,” she says, smiling. “But don’t worry, there’s a red plastic box.”

More laughter in the street. Someone says, “Please don’t shit in the bucket!”

“We’ll keep you updated,” the woman says, also laughing.

When I leave, the afternoon exams have begun and the occupiers have resumed chanting and banging.

I hear later from a student who was inside that the chanting was “so loud in the exam room and incredibly disruptive.” Another student says that he asked an official in the Examination Schools if the next day’s exams would take place as planned, and the answer was yes. He then asked if the university would make sure that the protesters leave the building and that there isn’t as much noise as there was today, and the official said no, they could not ensure that. A third student says that her chemistry exam was cancelled. She heard the protesters had taken the exam papers and thrown them out the window. She speculates that the vandalised exam papers may have been used to make the “Free Palestine” banner.

* * *

I walk past the original camp. Squares of yellow grass mark where tents used to be, as though the lawn were recovering from a scrofulous disease. Wooden pallets, chairs, tarps, and signs are strewn around the site, and there is a small pile of wood in the centre like an unlit bonfire. The straw and chip paths lead nowhere now. Along the sagging orange plastic exterior fence, cardboard signs are curled from a month of exposure. The site is deserted. Even the welcome tent is gone.

* * *

A week later it appears the original camp is not being abandoned after all. The protestors have planted box gardens in several places on the ravaged lawn. Four small olive trees sit in pots, waiting to be planted. A new sign says “If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them their oil would become tears.” Another says “The wall cannot separate the olive tree from its roots.”

A sign pinned to the fence says that “The raised garden bed and the array of plant colours planted by experienced community-gardeners who planted with longevity in mind are hoping for the potential for this as a viable source of sustainable food. The marks left on the grass are generative and the living archive exists now as a structure, a Palestine Solidarity Memorial and Gardens which sits here, on the green lawn of the Pitt Rivers Museum marking this space as a living archive of the encampment that preceded it and an [sic] critical space for mourning and grief.”

The conversion of the camp space into a garden and the disruption of final exams show that the movement is entrenching and escalating. I am not surprised. The university has allowed exams to be interrupted and cancelled. It has allowed the run-down camps to become public eyesores. It has shuttered the main doors to the undergraduate library, forcing students to enter via an underground tunnel from another building. Tourists visiting the Radcliffe Camera, the most-photographed building in the city, leave with images that show the campers surrounding it with tents, flags, and banners are in charge.

* * *

From the Oxford Action for Palestine Signal channel:

“!!BREAKING!!
OXFORD ADMIN SENDS
HEAVY MACHINERY TO DESTROY GAZA
MEMORIAL GARDEN”

The accompanying video shows a small front-end loader clearing away wooden crates and workers shovelling dirt, flattening mounds created by the protesters to simulate graves, and removing plants from the raised gardens.

Overnight, the original camp outside the Pitt Rivers Museum has been completely cleared and surrounded by metal fencing.

* * *

The administration issues an “Open letter from Oxford University to encampment students.” It explains how the university is acting to satisfy some of the protesters demands, including by reviewing the university’s policies on “direct investments in companies manufacturing arms that are illegal under U.K. law,” providing scholarships “for students normally resident in Gaza and the West Bank,” and making online access to library and teaching materials free for students in those territories.

Then come the university’s concerns, which include:

“1. The camps being used as a base for unlawful activity such as the incursion into the Wellington Square offices and the occupation of the Examination Schools.2. Interference with academic activity at the University, including blocking the entrances to the Sheldonian Theatre during a graduation ceremony and the cancellation of an examination.3. The impact on users of the Radcliffe Camera library including disabled users being unable to access the library.4. The damage caused to the University’s land, including significant damage to the lawns as the result of the encampments and planting of trees by protesters.5. Complaints about the camps from students.”

The university says that the protesters “are instructed to disband the camps and vacate the land.” “If the camps are not disbanded by midnight, Sunday 7th July the University will apply to the court for a possession order.” It says that the “University will not pursue disciplinary action against students in respect of their presence on the camps up to 7th July.” That gives the protesters 11 days to leave or potentially face discipline.

If the protestors are daunted, they aren’t showing it. They are already targeting next year’s incoming students. At the university’s Open Day, they distribute a pamphlet titled “Your guide to Oxford University’s complicity in Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza.” It describes the devastation in Gaza and purports to show how “Oxford’s finances are implicated in Israel’s assault on Gaza at every level.” It says that “We will not stop protesting until all our demands are met; we will not turn our eyes away from Gaza until Palestine is free” and it ends with an invitation to incoming students to join the protest movement.

The university hopes that the protesters will voluntarily disband their camps and stop disrupting university life before the July 7th deadline, but nothing to date shows that this is likely. To the contrary, the protesters’ message is clear: they will continue—this summer and next year, with new recruits—until they meet with clear opposition or capitulation.

Collin May: Is the cancel culture that cancelled me on its way out?

Commentary

A demonstrator uses a megaphone during a protest, Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Simi Valley, Calif. Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo.

When I was the target of a cancellation attack as chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission in 2022, losing my livelihood as a result, cancel culture had already been going strong for a decade.

My cancellation followed what has now become a familiar pattern. A coterie of politically motivated activists (in my case the Alberta NDP and their minions in the blogosphere) scour the internet for the slightest infraction by a public figure. Then the cancellers, virtue signal to their “in-group,” call out the target for an alleged offence against woke morality (I had written an academic book review 13 years ago on historic Islamic imperialism where a single line was plucked, in which I said it was an overly and inherently militaristic religion).

This is followed by more in-group lackeys engaging in a pile-on while practising social vigilantism (I faced the wrath of a small cabal of NDP-affiliated academics and the National Council of Canadian Muslims).

Finally, the third-party witnesses bring the cancellation event to its culmination using their power to terminate or de-platform the target (the Jason Kenney government capitulated and booted me from office only two months after taking up the post. I was fired the same day a complaint was received and learned I had lost my job on the news. I was never told by my employer fully why I was terminated).

From the perspective of the target, this pattern is personally devastating. In my case, I lost my income and the reputation I had worked so long to build. I had wound up my law practice before taking on the job with the commission, so I had no clients to return to. In order to salvage something from the experience, my only option was expensive and prolonged litigation. I am still working my way through a lawsuit with the Alberta government, flush with money and as much time as they need to drag it out.

Debt, depression, and physical illness are common. Shortly after I was terminated, my partner and I lost our home, and each developed health issues. That my partner had worked for former NDP Premier Rachel Notley for four years and that I personally knew many of the Alberta NDP MLAs who were now calling me racist and a purveyor of hate speech, made the betrayal all the more bitter.

Added to this was the sheer injustice of the experience.