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UCU Sussex motion on Palestinian solidarity and academic freedom

Sussex UCU branch notes:

1. The message of collective compassion shared by UCU’s Black Members’ Standing Committee, which we open this motion by echoing from our branch: “BMSC abhors the violence that has claimed innocent Palestinian, Lebanese and Israeli lives in recent days. We extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends who have lost loved ones and who continue to do so at this very moment.”

2. 120 countries, constituting more than two-thirds of the United Nations General Assembly, have called for a humanitarian truce in Gaza. The United Kingdom, in line with its ongoing vocal opposition to a humanitarian ceasefire, declined to do so.

3. Our national trade union’s call for an end to the occupation of Palestine and UCU’s stand of solidarity with colleagues at Birzeit University. We emphatically echo the call of Palestinian trade unions to end international complicity with Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity including:

  • The deliberate bombing of civilian homes, universities, schools and hospitals;

  • The blockade of water, food, medical supplies and fuel;

  • The proposal by Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence for the forced expulsion of more than two million human beings into the Egyptian desert.

4. Reports that Israel is committing crimes against humanity in Gaza, including collective punishment, ethnic cleansing and unfolding genocide. These include reports from multiple UN special rapporteurs, Palestinian human rights organisations, Jewish civil society groups, and hundreds of Holocaust and genocide studies scholars. The International Criminal Court has been formally asked to investigate the unfolding genocide in Gaza.

5. Calls from more than 250 British lawyers for the UK government to press for a ceasefire and an end to the siege of Gaza, to halt the export of weapons from the UK to Israel, and to act to prevent genocide, saying that Israel is committing serious breaches of international law in Gaza and that UK nationals who support international crimes are liable for prosecution under international law. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have already received notice of intention to prosecute for aiding and abetting war crimes.

6. Israel operates as an apartheid state, as affirmed by nine UN special rapporteurs, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Israeli human rights organisations, including Yesh Din and B’Tselem, and Palestinian human rights organisations, including Al-Haq and Addameer. This has been reaffirmed by the Anglican Church of South Africa and the South African government, who have cited their own bitter experience of apartheid as expertise.

7. The UK government played a central role in the creation of Israel as a settler colonial state, and has continued to provide financial, military and diplomatic support for its apartheid policies, in much the same way that it supported apartheid South Africa. As such, UK universities and academics have a special obligation to do all we can to speak out against settler colonialism and its devastating impacts.

8. Increased anti-Palestinian racism, and anti-Muslim, antisemitic and anti-Arab attacks in the UK and internationally.

9. Prevent's authoritarian overreach, and its application to criminalise Muslim communities and punish those who speak out on their behalf. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has expressed serious concern that Prevent has had a “negative impact on the rights to freedom of expression, education and freedom of religion,” while the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism has emphasised the “racist and Islamaphobic nature the Prevent strategy”. It also notes the chilling application of the Prevent programme to criminalise and punish those who speak out in defence of Palestinians and against the war in Gaza. The application of this to a higher education context is highlighted by a recent Amnesty International report which warns “the Prevent duty risks endangering the right to freedom of peaceful assembly” on university campuses.

10. A recent report by BRISMES and ELSC establishing that the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is not fit for purpose or internally consistent; it conflates legitimate critique of the State of Israel with antisemitism, and its adoption has had a chilling effect on scholarly scrutiny, academic freedom and freedom of speech. The University of Sussex adopted the IHRA working definition in 2020 without consultation. In this light, academic departments at the University of Sussex have already called for the University’s adoption of the IHRA working definition to be urgently repealed.

11. The failure of UK Higher Education bodies to defend the academic freedom of staff and students. This includes UKRI’s suspension of its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion advisory group under pressure from the UK government.

12. The recent statement by the Arab Council of Social Sciences: “We condemn the violation of academic freedoms and the silencing of dissent. We refuse all modes of cognitive colonization that are committed by such measures. We see the urgent need to put an end to coercive practices that force the adoption of anti-Palestinian stands and undermine the job security of workers in academic institutions."

13. The welcome guiding principles published by our own VC Professor Sasha Roseneil, committing the University of Sussex to protect the academic freedom of its community of staff and students, to enable “rigorous, rational, evidenced argument and respectful discussion”, and to oppose all forms of racism.

14. In contrast to the VC’s assertion that “The University does not take a corporate position on complex global events”, the University of Sussex does, in fact, take principled stances on “complex global events” in solidarity with the oppressed and vulnerable of the world. Such examples include:

  • In September 2022 the Vice Chancellor, Professor Roseneil, referred to Sussex’s history of solidarity with Black South Africans and stance against censorship in the weeks after Salman Rushdie was violently attacked, citing these as “the penchant for cultural challenge for which Sussex had become known”.

  • In March 2022 the University expressed “deep concern and outrage [at] the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces”, and raised almost £19,000 for Ukrainian students.

  • In 2020 the University of Sussex made a statement in support of Black Lives Matter.

  • In 1989 the University of Sussex raised £3000 for the Nelson and Winnie Mandela Scholarship Fund to support Black South Africans during South African apartheid.

Sussex UCU branch believes:

15. The conflation of legitimate criticism of Israel’s violation of international law, including its system of settler colonialism and apartheid, with antisemitism is tantamount to the silencing of Palestinians about their continued oppression under this regime and undermines the possibility of real solidarity and opposition to racism in all its forms.

16. A shared logic of dehumanization underlies anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish and anti-Black racism, and they must all be fought and rejected without compromise.

17. The principle of academic freedom should be protected, and this branch rejects in the strongest possible terms the current suppression and criminalisation of speech that seeks to humanise Palestinians and stop the ongoing genocide. Academic freedom includes the right to speak about the rights of people under occupation in accordance with international law.

18. It is not only permissible, but essential for scholars to be able to situate the current violence in its broad historical and geopolitical contexts. Sussex UCU affirms the expertise of its members on issues including but not limited to Israel/Palestine, occupation, apartheid, colonialism, crimes against humanity, and genocide; and affirms the importance of education and scholarship, especially at a time of heightened attention and widespread disinformation. This belief is underlined by our own VC’s commitment to safeguard academic freedom and freedom of speech, which echoes the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies for universities:

  • “to reassure academic staff that the right to education, freedom of speech, and academic freedom will be protected; and to affirm that the expression of unpopular and controversial views is an inevitable and crucial part of academic freedom and protected by law.”

Sussex UCU branch resolves:

19. To articulate its solidarity with Palestinians through whatever channels are open to its members and in the terms called for by Palestinian trade unions and academics. This includes:

  • The statement from the Union of Teachers & Employees of Birzeit University, Palestine.

  • The statement from Palestinian Trade Union coalition Workers in Palestine.

20. To call on our VC and University leadership to uphold our institutional principles of courage and integrity by reaffirming, in the face of increasing state intervention into the fundamental work of education and research, our institution’s legal and normative commitments to academic freedom, and protections of all Sussex staff and students in the exercise of that freedom.

21. Support all colleagues in this activity by:

  • Working with the University of Sussex to enable the exercise of academic freedom among staff and students, ensuring, as the VC has committed, that “diversity of belief and opinion can be expressed and heard safely and legally” and that all members of our community are able to engage in political dissent without the risk of surveillance or reprimand.

  • Reaffirming the UCU opposition to the Prevent Duty, to work together with colleagues who refuse compliance with the duty as a matter of conscience and to continue to campaign for its abolition.

  • Supporting students and staff in their right to dissent and protest.

22. To demand that the University of Sussex:

  • Divest from companies that are complicit in Israel’s militarised violence and oppression of the Palestinian people.

  • Reject the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, for the reasons outlined above.

  • Engage with the Sussex community to develop anti-racism policies that address the shared logic of dehumanisation that underlies all forms of racism.

  • Raise scholarship and hardship funds for Palestinian students so as to provide critical financial and wellbeing support to students in their darkest hour.

23. To reaffirm the UCU national position of support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement until Israel ends its subjugation of the Palestinian people and observes international human rights law.

24. To demand that the UK government:

Motion proposed by: a collective of Sussex UCU members from across the Schools of Education and Social Work; Global Studies; Law, Politics and Sociology; Media Arts and Humanities; and the University of Sussex Business School.


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