The university’s current position acknowledges the “loss of innocent lives in Israel” but only the “impacts of escalating violence in Gaza”Eric Williams for Varsity

Over a thousand students and staff are demanding that Cambridge “sever financial ties with Israel,” as Palestinian students delivered a widely signed open letter to the vice-chancellor this morning.

The open letter, which has almost 1,500 signatures, is also demanding that the university change its public position on events in Israel and Gaza to acknowledge “the slaughter of innocent Palestinians.”

Authored by the Palestine Solidarity Society (PalSoc), the letter has several other demands.

Here are the key issues that have been laid on the vice-chancellor’s desk, as pressure mounts from pro-Palestinian students and staff.

Publicly denouncing ‘slaughter of innocent Palestinians’

The university’s current position acknowledges the “loss of innocent lives in Israel” but only the “impacts of escalating violence in Gaza.”

This wording has been condemned by the letter’s signatories, who claim its “passive” phrasing makes Cambridge “complicit” in the “dehumanisation” and “vilification” of Palestinians.

Instead, the letter is demanding that the vice-chancellor acknowledge the “slaughter of innocent Palestinians” and “denounce the inhumane measures imposed on Gaza by Israel.”

Israeli airstrikes have been hitting Gaza for thirteen days now, and a “complete siege” has blocked the Palestinian enclave’s access to water, electricity, food and fuel.

More than 3,700 people have been killed in Gaza over that two week period.

One Palestinian student from PalSoc spoke to Varsity, saying: “there is not one Palestinian I know who is not either personally related to Gazans or within two degrees of separation from someone who has been killed, had their home destroyed, or been displaced.”

“I hope the university is able to see and recognise the grief and stress this war has put on its students,” they continued.

The demands by pro-Palestinian student and staff come in the wake of the University changing its position last Thursday (12/10) to explicitly condemn the Hamas attacks, in response to an Israeli student’s open letter.

The October 7th attacks by Hamas, a Palestinian organisation of Islamist militants, killed 1,400 people in Israel. Hamas is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the United States, the EU and the UK, as well as other powers.

Severing financial ties to Israel

Students and staff are also pressuring the university to “assess and sever all financial ties to the Israeli government.”

Citing UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese’s recent warning that Israel is on the verge of committing “mass ethnic cleansing,” the letter outlines a list of “war crimes” done against Gazans as justification for university divestment from Israel.

The open letter mentions Cambridge’s severance of financial ties to the Russian Federation after the invasion of Ukraine as precedent for this kind of decision.

In March 2022, Cambridge publicly released and largely brought to an end its connections with Russia through university endowment fund investments, research funding, donations, and academic partnerships.

Both the Russian Federation, Russian organisations, and Russian individuals were considered in these evaluations.

Over the past year, pro-Palestinian student societies have criticised university connections to companies involved in Israel’s military operations. Israeli armoured vehicle manufacturer Plasan and more well known corporations like Boeing, BAE Systems, and Caterpillar have been among those mentioned.

Speaking to Varsity, the open letter’s authors suggested that these should be included in any potential university evaluation.

University protections for Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and other students

Students and staff are also demanding that the University introduce protections for Palestinian, Arab, South Asian, Black, Muslim, and international students.

According to the open letter, there have been incidents on campus of “harassment” and “intimidation” of students of colour within these groups since October 7th.

This comes after a Divinity Professor, James Orr, was accused of being “racist” and “dehumanising” towards Arabs and Palestinians last week, with an academic in his own faculty saying it was “unthinkable” that he could teach “without discrimination.”

Professor Orr, who played a leading role at the controversial ‘National Conservatism Conference’ in May, responded online to a video of pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, which showed Muslim protestors praying, by stating: “Import the Arab World, become the Arab World.”

The University is yet to respond to the incident.

The Palestinian student discussed the calls for protection measures with Varsity, saying there has been an “uptick in hate crimes and discrimination” that has been “extremely concerning.”

“Students’ safety and sense of belonging at the university has been impacted,” they continued, adding that Cambridge should “provide assurance” to Arabs and Palestinians with “a condemnation of Professor James Orr’s racist comments.”

“Cambridge has a responsibility to protect all of its students and staff, and that protection is now needed more than ever,” they added.

Vice-chancellor Deborah Prentice has already said that the University Security Section will be on “alert” for “any activity that might make members of the Jewish community feel unsafe.”

The VC promised security would do “proactive patrolling” and “work with local institutions, including the Police” last Thursday (12/10).

Academic freedom and free speech guarantees

According to the letter, “pro-Palestine advocates and students of colour” have faced “censorship,” “harassment,” and “intimidation.”

Universities’ approach to freedom of speech in the context of events in Israel and Gaza is quickly becoming a major issue in higher education, with stories of campuses in crisis emerging from the US.

Last week, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan wrote to UK university vice-chancellors, telling them to use the government’s antiterrorist ‘Prevent’ system to deal with any suspected incidents of support for terrorism.

This followed Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s instructions to the police and crime commissioners last week that chants such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” could amount to a racially aggravated section 5 public order offence.


Mountain View

Pro-Palestinian vigil held for Gazans killed

The open letter demands that the university publicly “call for the preservation of academic freedoms and free speech on campus.”

According to the letter, these four actions are necessary if the university is to “retain its academic and ethical integrity” in a “political climate where the UK government endorses Israel’s illegal conduct.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday that Israel has a “right and duty” to military action against Hamas and that Britain is “proud” to stand with Israel in its “darkest hour.”