British colleges handle protests differently. Will it pay off?

On Thursday, Palestinian flags waved in the breeze above two neat rows of orange and green tents at Cambridge University, where students read, talked and played chess in a small encampment protesting the Gaza war.

There were no police officers in sight and there wasn't much to do if they showed up, unless they felt like joining a health club or a kite-making workshop.

Pro-Palestinian encampments have spread to 15 universities across Britain in recent days, but there are still few signs of the violent clashes that have rocked American campuses.

This is partly because university authorities are taking a more permissive approach, citing the importance of protecting free speech, even if the government is not entirely keen regarding the protests. This may also reflect the less polarized debate in Britain, where polls suggest a majority of people believe Israel should declare a ceasefire.

At Oxford University, the atmosphere was more camping than confrontational, with about 50 tents pitched on a prominent green lawn outside the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Despite the sunny weather, wooden planks covered the grass which in some places had turned to mud when the authorities turned on the sprinklers in a hostile greeting to the campers (after an argument between the university and the students, the sprinklers were were arrested on Wednesday).

Supplies of sunscreen, water, juice and hot drinks were lined up on a table, while a blackboard displayed a running list of necessities: cups, spoons and paper plates.

“People keep saying, 'It's a festival, they're having fun,'” said Kendall Gardner, an American graduate student and protester. She contested this idea emphatically: “This is very difficult, there is a lot of hostility towards us all the time; we run a miniature city and that's no fun.

Ms. Gardner, 26, originally from Fishers, Indiana, went viral in a video interview with Al Jazeera this week, explaining why Oxford students are calling for the university to divest from companies linked to the Israeli army. The interview has been viewed 15 million times on X, the social media platform.

Part of his motivation is his Jewish heritage, he said, highlighting what he described as genocide in Gaza. “My Judaism is an integral part of why I am an activist,” she said. “To have someone tell you, 'This keeps you safe' – dead children – is indescribable, and I'm here to say, 'No, that's totally wrong.'”

Later in the afternoon – before a discussion about how to balance studies with protest, a vigil to commemorate the people who had died in Gaza and some poetry readings – the Oxford students sang a short song of “From the River to the Sea , Palestine Be Free.” The phrase is seen by some Israel supporters as a rallying cry for the country's uprooting and is the kind of language that concerns groups such as the Jewish Students Union, which claims to represent 9,000 Jewish students in Great Britain and Ireland.

Edward Isaacs, the group's president, said this week that antisemitism had reached an “all-time high” in British colleges and called on university leaders to “take swift and decisive action to safeguard Jewish life on campuses.”

Partly in response to these concerns, Britain's Conservative Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, called the leaders of several universities to Downing Street on Thursday to discuss ways to tackle anti-Semitism.

Gardner said Jewish students who oppose Israel's action in Gaza are themselves being targeted. “There was a lot of harassment of anti-Zionist Jewish students, calling them Nazis,” she said. “I get it all the time, people tell me, 'You're not a real Jew, you're a fake Jew.'”

Rosy Wilson, 19, who studies politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and is from Manchester in the north of England, said she was reassured by the number of Jewish students in the camp who “see this as a safe space”.

Ms Wilson, who had a copy of the philosopher Hegel's works in her tent, described the routine of study, discussion and activism in the camp as “bittersweet”. “I'm really happy that, while protesting something horrible, we were able to create a space that feels like a vision of a better world,” she 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 warn that it is too early to judge whether Britain will avoid the violence and arrests seen on some US campuses.

“I wouldn't say this couldn't happen here,” said Feyzi Ismail, a professor of global politics and activism at Goldsmiths, University of London, where there have also been protests. “It depends on how the government takes it, how threatening the encampments feel, how long they last and how they evolve.”

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

In Britain, the focus of pro-Palestinian protesters has so far been on large public marches, including those regularly seen in London, rather than on campuses.

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

Some analysts believe this could happen if student behavior becomes more aggressive or if the protesters themselves become targeted by demonstrators who oppose them, as at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Students said they believe they have been spared eviction from the encampments both because British police tactics are less confrontational than in the United States and because university leaders want to avoid inflaming the situation.

At the Oxford protest, where students were offered “de-escalation training”, a handful of police officers arrive every day and walk around the camp, although participants are asked not to speak to them.

Amytess Girgis, 24, an Oxford graduate student from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said the police in Britain “are much less militarized than in the United States; the way the police are trained in the United States and the way they are armed is not conducive to reducing tension.” She added that she thought the British authorities probably saw what happened in America as a warning against police intervention.

In a statement, Oxford said it respects the “right to freedom of expression in the form of peaceful protests”, adding: “We ask all those who take part to do so with respect, courtesy and empathy.”

Among those supporting the protests are more than 300 Cambridge lecturers who have signed a public letter in solidarity.

“I really think the students are well-intentioned and peaceful,” said Chana Morgenstern, an Israeli citizen and associate professor of postcolonial and Middle Eastern literature at Cambridge. “They are quite open to conversation even with people who don't agree with them. I've seen less progressive Jewish students on faculty come and talk to students, so I think this could be an opportunity to have an open public dialogue.”

In Cambridge, where tourists have been cruising the River Cam on punts not far from the student protest, disruption from the encampment has so far been minimal.

“It's supposed to be peaceful,” said Abbie Da Re, a visitor from Bury St. Edmunds, east of Cambridge, when asked about the encampment just 100 meters away. “I didn't even hear it.”

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