British colleges are handling protests differently. Will it pay off?

Palestinian flags fluttered in the breeze above two neat rows of orange and green tents at Cambridge University on Thursday, where students read, talked and played chess in a small camp to protest the Gaza war.

There were no police officers to be seen and if they did come, there wasn't much for them to do, unless they felt like joining a wellness club or a kite-making workshop.

Pro-Palestinian campuses have sprung up at 15 universities across the UK in recent days, but so far there have been few signs of the violent clashes that have rocked American campuses.

That's partly because college officials here are taking a more permissive approach, citing the importance of protecting free speech, even if the government isn't entirely happy. It may also reflect a less polarized debate within the UK about the protests, where polls show a majority of people believe Israel should end the war.

At Oxford University, there was more of a campsite than a clash, with around 50 tents set up on a prominent green lawn outside the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Despite the sunny weather, wooden planks covered the grass which turned to mud in places when the authorities turned on the water sprinklers in an unfriendly welcome to the campers. (Sprinkling was stopped on Wednesday after discussions between the university and students.)

A supply of sunscreen, water, juice and hot drinks lay on a table, while a whiteboard displayed a list of necessities: cups, spoons and paper plates.

“People keep saying, 'It's a festival, they're having a great time,'” said Kendall Gardner, an American graduate student and protester. He vehemently disagreed with the idea: “It's very difficult, there's a lot of hostility being thrown at us every moment. We're running a small town, and it's not fun.

Mrs. Gardner, 26, of Fishers, Ind. One of them went viral Video interview This week with Al Jazeera, explaining why Oxford students are calling for the university to divest from companies linked to Israel's military. The interview has been viewed over 15 million times on social media platform X.

Part of his motivation is his Jewish heritage, he said, pointing to the genocide in Gaza. “My Jewishness is a big part of why I'm an activist,” she said. “For someone to tell you 'it keeps you safe' – dead children – it's unspeakable, and I'm here to say, 'No, that's absolutely wrong.'

Later in the afternoon — before a discussion about balancing studies with protests, a vigil in memory of those who died in Gaza and some poetry readings — Oxford students held a short chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine. will be free.” The phrase is used by some supporters of Israel as a rallying cry for the country's end, and it's the kind of language that concerns groups such as the Union of Jewish Students, which says it has 9,000 Jews in Britain and Ireland. Represents students.

The group's president, Edward Isaacs, said this week that antisemitism in British colleges had reached an “all-time high” and called on university leaders to “protect Jewish life on campus”. Take immediate and decisive action.”

Partly in response to these concerns, Britain's prime minister, Rishi Singh, a conservative, summoned the leaders of several universities to Downing Street on Thursday to discuss ways to combat antisemitism.

Ms. Gardner said that Jewish students who oppose Israel's actions in Gaza are themselves being targeted. “Anti-Zionist Jewish students have been harassed as Nazis,” he said. “I get it all the time, people say to me, 'You're not a real Jew, you're a fake Jew.'

Rosie Wilson, 19, who is studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and comes from Manchester in the north of England, said she was reassured by the number of Jewish students at the camp who “consider it a safe place. are.”

Ms Wilson, who had a copy of philosopher Hegel's works in her tent, described the routine of study, debate and activism at the camp as “bittersweet”. “I'm really glad that by protesting against something terrible we've been able to create a space that feels like a vision of a better world,” he said. “But I don't think we should get caught up in that vision and forget why we're here in the first place.”

Some experts have warned that it is too early to judge whether Britain will be able to avoid the kind of violence and arrests seen on some American campuses.

“I wouldn't say it can't happen here,” said Fizzy Ismail, a lecturer in global policy and activism at Goldsmiths, University of London, where protests have also taken place. “It depends on how the government takes it, how dangerous they perceive the camps to be, how long they last and how they are developed.”

University officials are in a difficult position: the more they crack down, the more it will escalate, Dr. Ismail said, and I think university leaders are well aware of that.

In the UK, pro-Palestinian protests have so far focused on large public marches, including those regularly seen in London rather than on campuses.

Sally Mapstone, president of Universities UK, which represents colleges, said on Thursday that university officials “may need to take action” if the protests interfere with campus life.

Some analysts believe this could happen if student behavior becomes more aggressive, or if protesters themselves are targeted by counter-demonstrators, as happened at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The students said they believed they had been spared eviction from the camps because British police tactics were less confrontational than in the United States and because college leaders wanted to avoid escalating the situation.

At the Oxford protest, where students have been offered “de-escalation training”, a handful of police officers arrive each day and walk around the camp, although participants are urged not to talk to them.

Emmetts Griggs, 24, a graduate student at Oxford from Grand Rapids, Mich., said the police in the UK are “much less militant than in the US; the way the police are trained and armed in the US. , it is not conducive to de-escalation. He added that he believed that the British authorities may have seen what happened in the US as a warning against police intervention.

In a statement, Oxford said it “respects the right to freedom of expression in the form of peaceful protest”, adding, “We ask everyone who participates to do so with respect, courtesy and compassion. “

Supporters of the protests include more than 300 Cambridge academic staff who have signed a public letter in solidarity.

“I think the students are well-intentioned and peaceful,” said Chana Morgenstern, an Israeli citizen who is an associate professor in postcolonial and Middle Eastern literature at Cambridge. “They're quite open to dialogue with people who don't agree with them. I've seen less progressive Jewish students come to the faculty to talk to students, so I think it's an open public.” There may be an opportunity for dialogue.”

In Cambridge, where tourists cruised the River Cam on punts not far from the student protests, disruption from the camp has so far been minimal.

''It must be peaceful,'' said Abbey Da Re, a visitor from Bury St Edmunds, east of Cambridge, when asked about the camp just 100 yards away. “I didn't even hear it.”

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