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LSHTM Voices - Reflections on Free speech and Ethical Investments Policies at LSHTM

In our effort to amplify the right voices, we are sharing this letter on behalf of a current MSc student and a staff member on the question:

Do LSHTM policies impede research in conflict affected states?

Dear LSHTM Leadership,

We are writing to you as one MSc student and one current staff member at LSHTM. Following the violence that has unfolded in Palestine, we feel obliged to inquire about the school’s free speech, advocacy and ethical investment policies in order to understand their potential impact on LSHTM research in the region and beyond.

As young researchers whose primary focus is on conflict-affected settings, predominantly those in West Asia, we make concerted efforts to amplify the voices of people affected by conflicts. Recently, we have grown concerned that LSHTM policies might stifle people’s freedom to describe their own reality while maintaining financial relationships with human rights abusers.

The LSHTM’s decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) ‘working definition of antisemitism’ is a case in point. The IHRA statement is so vague as to be unusable for the purposes of protecting Jewish people from discrimination (‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews …’ [emphasis ours]). Indeed, a recent report by University College London concluded that it provided no additional protection for Jewish students and staff over and above that provided by the Equality Act. However, 7 of the 11 examples of antisemitism in the IHRA working definition do mention Israel, seemingly conflating any criticism of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism. Back in 2019, the likes of Jared Kushner spelled out this implicit message, clarifying that the definition meant that ‘Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism’. The result has been a ‘chilling effect’ on teaching, research and debate.

Numerous organizations and scholars - including the author of the working definition himself - have denounced that it has been weaponized to suppress free speech, particularly in higher education. The UK’s primary academic trade union, the UCU, opposes its adoption, as does University College London, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, and a group of over 40 Jewish organizations worldwide.

As researchers in conflict-ridden areas, including Palestine, how can we tell people’s stories if we are not allowed to use their vocabulary? How can we offer Palestinian researchers opportunities to speak up if they are not allowed to share their lived experiences? How can we meaningfully collaborate with Palestinian institutions if they feel censored or silenced by the school’s policies?

LSHTM researchers shouldn't deny reality and the language used to talk about what is happening in Palestine and other conflict settings matters. Research institutions like ours should be cognizant of the potential danger of adopting any policies that directly constrain the way indigenous populations talk about their own struggle. Failing to protect space to discuss human rights violations and attempts to dehumanize and discriminate against indigenous populations like the Palestinians would only serve to perpetuate these situations.

Additionally, we wonder if the absence of an explicit ethical perspective in the school’s investment policies represents a threat to our research partnerships in Palestine, and in any other conflict-affected states, making LSHTM vulnerable to accusations of taking sides.

In 2020, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign denounced that over 100 UK universities - including LSHTM - are investing in Israeli companies linked to violations of international law. The campaign estimated our institution’s investments to be no less than £693,029. Other universities appear to be recognizing their role in perpetuating harm and taking redressive action. For example, in 2020, Manchester University began divesting from firms that were complicit in Israeli violations of international law. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for LSHTM.

As an educational institution, LSHTM has a duty to safeguard all individuals that it engages and exchanges with. As an institution whose mission is to work in partnership to achieve excellence in public and global health research, LSHTM has an obligation to uphold these standards of protection not only internally, but within the wider global community.

The decolonization of global health at LSHTM should be inclusive of all manifestations of coloniality, or the school should clearly define the boundaries of its decolonization agenda.

Remaining silent in situations described by our Palestinian peers as manifest (neo-) colonial injustice, have proven to be impossible (e.g. read the words of our colleague, Prof. Rita Giacaman, founder of the Institute for Community and Public Health at historic Birzeit University, Ramallah, West Bank, occupied Palestinian Territories, here on the Syria Research Group website) .

We are asking LSHTM to ensure that every researcher at or working with LSHTM has the right to speak against any form of injustice without fear. In regard to this, we would like LSHTM to:

- Engage with researchers from West Asia, those whose focus is on West Asia and UCU representatives at the school to discuss the legitimacy of the IHRA definition in our institution. A clear rationale for its adoption or the opposition to its adoption should be made available to all.

- Clarify LSHTM’s position on the protection of scholars who self-identify as under threat from oppressive systems, and offer guidelines for researchers and scholar-activists at LSHTM who support initiatives such as Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) and currently feel threatened by the adopted policies (see statement from Palestine and Praxis).

- Continue to be an academic leader by taking transparent and concerted efforts to discuss this topic. Step into the discomfort that this may evoke, rather than avoiding and ignoring it.

- Disclose the details of the £693,029 worth of investments presented in the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign’s analysis and, if confirmed, take steps to divest from Israeli companies that are fueling harm. This is a prerequisite in order to build trust among LSHTM’s partners that we are ethically conscious of our impact.

- Be transparent about what steps, if any, have been taken to ensure that LSHTM investments are ethical and do not contribute to the colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians or any other oppressed groups.

We demand to see an #ApartheidFree campus which protects staff, students and colleagues from antisemitism and islamophobia whilst maintaining our freedom as researchers from and working in conflict-affected settings.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards, Mervat Alhaffar & Layth Hanbali

Additional resources about Palestine, BDS and solidarity campaigns

***Dr Yara Asi created an essential reading list on Palestine that includes classics but also fiction and cookbooks that can be found in this article published in Diplomatic Courier (here) or on her Twitter account (here).

She is a Fulbright scholar in the West Bank, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington DC and holds a PhD in Public Affairs


***DGH LSHTM open letter on LSHTM & Palestine is available here

***Decolonising LSE Collective letter in Solidarity with Palestine is available here

***Africa Is a Country (AIAC) TV talk - Writing as a cultural weapon: South African and Palestinian poets on the shared experience of apartheid and resistance here

The event featured South African writers reading the poetry and prose of Palestinian writers (with some joining subject to availability during these trying circumstances). South Africans know the despair and suffering of apartheid. But South Africans also know that apartheid can end. And so, as Palestinians continue to resist, we hope for this to serve as a small gesture of solidarity as they dream of freedom.

“A dream is a piece of the sky found in everyone,” asserted the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. “We can’t be boundlessly realistic or pragmatic. We are in need of the sky. To strike a balance between what is true and what is imaginary. The dream is the province of poetry.”

***The BDS Struggle in US Academia by David Palumbo-Liu from Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University (2017) here

***San Francisco Educators (teacher unions) Endorse BDS Alex Schmaus and Brian Bean (2021) here

***Learn more about the Palestine Solidarity Campaign which includes historical account of the UK complicity, Israeli apartheid and the impact of Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) in the guide here

BDS is an anti-racist, anti-discrimination, non-violent movement which seeks to campaign for freedom, justice and equality for all. It’s time to get #ApartheidOffCampus!

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign created a guide on how to build a campaign to get #ApartheidOffCampus and get universities to pledge to be #ApartheidFree. They also developed the University Complicity Database. According to their findings,

UK universities collectively invest nearly £450m in companies complicit in Israeli violations of international law”.

The database, which can be found here, shows that while over 87 UK universities hold “ethical investment policies”, 118 out of a total of 150 continue to invest in companies complicit with what B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), one of the largest human rights group in the country, has now defined as apartheid regime (report here).


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