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King’s College London Among Universities Condemning Student Leaders for Pro-Palestine Advocacy

Half of the college’s elected student representatives were suspended for five months after raising concerns about the war.

Words: Sana Daniyal & Shaheen Abdulla
Pictures: Fred
Date:

On Nov. 5, 2023 Israeli strikes killed Dr. Maisara Alrayyes, an alumnus of King’s College London (KCL), and his family at their home in Gaza. The Alrayyes were among hundreds of health workers killed in the catastrophic war on Gaza since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

The tragic death prompted three office bearers of the KCL Students’ Union (KCLSU) to come together and ask the union administration to host a memorial for friends and colleagues of the Alrayyes family. 

But no one from the union’s senior leadership team showed up to pay respect.

Upset by the apathy, the three elected union officers released a statement on Instagram expressing their discontent with the union and solidarity for Palestine. Immediately after, the officers were suspended from their roles. One officer, Zainab*, recounts how the university she called “home away from home” for over three years turned “foreign” in less than a day.

“Our ID cards and email access to the building were revoked within 12 hours of our suspension. We became instant outcasts,” she said.

Global Protests 

Hundreds of students have joined pro-Palestinian anti-war protests worldwide, demanding their universities cut ties with companies that aid the Israel military that killed over 35,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to the Gaza health ministry. 

In both the US and UK, recognized as steadfast supporters of Israel, student protestors encountered legal repercussions, academic penalties, and social intimidation due to their stance on the conflict.

The spotlight for the campus action came after the New York Police Department, in late April, stormed the campus of Columbia University and dispersed the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” The Gaza encampment has spread across campuses in the US, the UK and other European countries.

The Gaza encampment became a reminder of anti-Vietnam War protests in 1968 and protests calling for divestment from Apartheid South Africa in 1985.

In early May, there were 15 peaceful student protest encampments across England and Scotland.

“We have undergone multiple disciplinary and investigation hearings by KCLSU to probe four different allegations of gross misconduct. Our only other interaction with the student union was a meeting, during which we were informed of our immediate suspension. There has been no interaction or support beyond that,” Zainab told Inkstick.

The suspended student officers were reinstated on May 8, after five months. But the senior leadership team hasn’t interacted with them. KCLSU has yet to announce their reinstatement officially.

“I feel the student movement is responsible for our reinstating. Although the investigation we were under finds us to have committed “gross misconduct” something we vehemently dispute, the logical conclusion of this and in other cases of gross misconduct at KCLSU would be dismissal,” she added. 

However, in the current atmosphere, KCLSU knew they couldn’t afford to dismiss us as it would prove to be the trigger of an encampment at King’s.” 

Students Allege Discrimination

The student officer, while speaking to Inkstick, said that the absence of support from the university and student union administration exacerbated feelings of “abandonment and isolation.”

*Zainab explained that despite efforts to persuade the student union to issue a statement condemning the violence, she and her colleagues encountered hostility and criticism with “clear undertones of Islamophobia and discrimination.”

“The overwhelming support we received from the student body and the wider community completely overpowered the backlash and we felt confident in our position throughout,” Zainab said.

“KCL Israel Society released a statement where they threatened to prosecute pro-Palestinians on campus. This statement is still up on their page. At the same time, the Palestinian Society at KCL was under investigation for sharing information and reposting news articles about the ongoing conflict. This severe contrast firmed their belief that they were discriminating against Palestinians,” she added.

A college faculty member and member of the King’s College London chapter of the University and College Union, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, sees the “militarized police repression” of students in the US and KCL’s repressive tactics as germinating from the same mindset: “desperation to crush Palestinian voices on campus at any cost.”

“King’s College London hasn’t called the police against its students and staff yet but has used many other forms of repression to silence pro-Palestine voices on campus, including by allowing the political use of its complaint procedure and by collaborating with the racist Prevent program,” the faculty member said.

“The KCLSU suspension of the three sabbatical officers for expressing their support for Palestine and their criticism of the KCLSU’s silence needs to be located in this context,” the faculty added.

Ben Brown, non-teaching support staff at King’s and a member of UNISON, the largest union in the UK said the incidents have a ‘’chilling effect” on freedom of speech.

“Workers and students are targeted for criticizing an institution or speaking out in support of Palestinians,” Brown told lnkstick.

“What we are also seeing is institutions being afraid of the rightful backlash they face when carrying out punitive attacks on workers and students and using different mechanisms to isolate students and workers from speaking out on being targeted to avoid having to respond to why they are doing this.”

“Double Standards”

As campuses in the UK joined the global protest, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged university bosses to take a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination and announced 500,000 pounds ($626,000) in funding for the University Jewish Chaplaincy service to provide welfare services to Jewish students.

“A vocal minority on our campuses are disrupting the lives and studies of their fellow students and, in some cases, propagating outright harassment and antisemitic abuse. That has to stop,” Sunak said while being silent about the safety of pro-Palestine protesters.

Despite pro-Israel advocacy groups labeling the protests as antisemitic, several Jewish groups have pledged to support pro-Palestine demonstrations.

Ahmad*, a student of Medicine at KCL, lamented the “self-censorship that holds sway among pro-Palestine students in general and Muslim students in particular.”

“What use is all the lip service to freedom of speech and diversity when the university repeatedly lets down students from a particular category, when it comes to dignifying their pain, anguish, and hurt?” the 22-year-old asked.

Students of KCL pointed out the stark contrast to the student union’s attitude, recalling the strongly worded condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

Ahmad’s classmate, Amy*, said there was a “glaring double standard” when it comes to outrightly condemning Russia and showing solidarity with Ukraine, at the very beginning of the invasion and being extremely tight-lipped on the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents in Palestine and punishing those that choose to break their silence. “If that is not an admission that white life holds higher value for our institutional elite, I don’t know what is,” she said.

KCLSU didn’t respond to questions sent by Inkstick regarding the suspension and the criticism by students.

In December last year, KCLSU said that they “remain committed to freedom of speech, especially when debating contentious issues.” 

“This is a fundamental democratic principle we hold dear. At the same time, we have clear governance policies and procedures, which must be followed, and we must respect and maintain confidentiality,” the statement read.

*Names are changed to protect the identity of the students due to safety concerns.

Sana Daniyal & Shaheen Abdulla

Sana Daniyal is an undergraduate student of Psychology at OP. Jindal Global University. Her core areas of interest include, South Asia, Middle East, and the political psychology of the regions. Follow her on LinkedIn. Shaheen Abdulla is a freelance journalist covering human rights and minorities. He regularly contributes to various international organizations from India.

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