UK’s student union rebukes officer for Israeli embassy plot

Undercover footage of NUS vice president Richard Brooks showed him plotting to overthrow elected union president Malia Bouattia because of her role as a Palestine solidarity campaigner.

A senior officer in Britain’s National Union of Students has been censured for his role in a pro-Israel propaganda scandal.

Earlier this week, the union’s executive council voted that Richard Brooks had “violated democratic procedures of accountability.” Brooks, a vice president with the union, featured in January’s Al Jazeera documentary on Britain’s pro-Israel lobby.

Undercover footage showed Brooks plotting to oust Malia Bouattia, the union’s overall president and a supporter of Palestinian rights. Brooks made his comments to a reporter, who had been posing as a youth activist with connections to Israel’s embassy in London.

In a motion that council members said passed by 15 votes to 13 on Monday, the union said it was unacceptable for a vice president “to discuss the undermining of a democratically elected officer with a student introduced by an embassy and therefore by a foreign government.”

The union represents more than 7 million students in the UK. According to its rulebook, a censure is a rebuke short of a full no-confidence vote at a union conference – which could remove an officer from their position.

In a separate motion that passed by 16 votes to 13, the union executive reaffirmed its support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and condemned recent participation by some elected union officers in propaganda trips to Israel.

Shakira Martin, another vice-president, went on a trip to Israel organized by the Union of Jewish Students in January.

The Union of Jewish Students is a pro-Israel organization that receives funding from the Israeli government.

A statement signed by Palestinian student groups said such trips serve to “whitewash Israeli crimes and decades-long oppression of our people” and give “a one-sided, pro-apartheid vision of our reality here in Palestine.”

Martin’s attendance on the trip was surprising given that she had previously stated her support for peace and justice in Palestine and for the BDS movement.

Angela Alexander, women’s officer for the National Union of Students Scotland, joined the same trip. And Richard Brooks was shown discussing having participated in a previous trip in the Al Jazeera documentary.

The motion passed on Monday asserts that “international solidarity with a people should be rooted in a principled position of respect for human rights and dignity and against oppression and should not be swayed by full-expense-paid trips.”

Martin is the union’s vice president for further education. More than 200 further education students signed a letter condemning her attendance on the trip.

The National Union of Students has held a position in support of the BDS movement for several years. More than 25 individual student unions at universities across the UK have also voted to support BDS.

BDS campaigns have persuaded a number of universities to cancel contracts with companies that are complicit with Israeli violations of international law such as Eden Springs, G4S and Veolia, which sold its Israeli business as a result of a years-long BDS campaign.

Resisting attacks on Palestine activism

Shelly Asquith, another of the union’s vice presidents, said she was pleased that the union’s support for the BDS movement had been reaffirmed.

“At a time when students’ rights to organize on this issue are increasingly being undermined through programs such as the Prevent agenda, it feels particularly important to re-assert our position,” Asquith told The Electronic Intifada.

Prevent is a British government program ostensibly designed to stop young people from becoming involved in “terrorism.” Since it was introduced to British schools and universities, police have deemed the reading of literature sympathetic to the Palestinians as evidence of holding “terrorist-like” views.

The UK government, universities and pro-Israel groups are currently seeking to restrict freedom of speech in order to protect Israel from criticism.

Last week, management at both the University College London and the University of Central Lancashire withdrew permission for events planned for Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual series of events held by the Palestine solidarity movement.

However, Israeli Apartheid Week events organized students at both universities are still taking place, as are events at more than 30 other campuses across the UK.

More than 200 people attended an opening event for Israeli Apartheid Week in London on Tuesday. The event featured Farid Esack, a South African academic and anti-apartheid activist and Aja Monet, a spoken word artist and human rights advocate from the US.

Attempts to stifle pro-Palestine activism represent a serious attack on freedom of speech. But they are simply failing to deter students from taking principled action in support of Palestinians and their struggle for liberation.

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I suggest sending (undercover) students on these trips to document what Israel tells them while there. Let's see just what Israeli propaganda is being given to these students.

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not a good strategy - we're pretty good at figuring out who's genuine and who isn't, especially if their trip is being subsidized.

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Michael Deas

Michael Deas is a Palestine solidarity organiser based in the UK.

He was formerly a campaigns officer with the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), the Palestinian civil society coalition that acts as the Palestinian reference of the movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law. 

You can get regular BDS updates from the BNC by following @BDSmovement. Michael Tweets from @michaeldeas