Opinion

#FreePalestine: Harris Manchester becomes first Oxford college to fly flag in solidarity with Palestine

*Since the writing of this article, the Palestinian flag has been taken down and replaced by the rainbow pride flag in recognition of Pride Month.*

A Palestinian flag was flying above Harris Manchester College early this week. This follows large demonstrations and marches which took place on Saturday and Sunday last week in Central Oxford, attended by hundreds of students and local residents, as well as former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who spoke in support of the rising movements of global protests against the actions of the Israeli government after 11 days of violence in occupied Palestine.

The shocking escalation of violence, during which at least 230 Palestinians were killed, including 65 children, and 13 Israeli deaths, including two children, has prompted widespread responses. Many students issued statements through their JCRs, either to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine or to donate money to the Islamic Relief Emergency Fund and similar charitable organisations, as was the case at both St Anne’s and Exeter Colleges. A motion condemning Israel’s violence was also passed by the Oxford Student Council at the height of the violence.

The Palestinian flag flying from an Oxford College’s flagstaff, however, represents a significant development in what students have been able to achieve through protest, as the endorsement from a college for a political cause, and the Palestinian cause in particular, is unprecedented. Palestine’s flag and the support for Palestine has been a contentious issue in academic institutions for decades. Harvard University refused to allow the flying of the Palestinian flag in 2004 on the grounds of the lack of recognition by the USA of its statehood. In 2002, Yale ordered the flag removed from their campus, citing postering rules, deeming the flag an act of vandalism. The administration of Barnard College also interfered to prevent students flying a banner of solidarity with Palestine in 2014, while the UK national governing body for higher education sport (BUCS), and a spokesperson for Goldsmiths rugby team, criticised Goldsmiths players for mixing politics with sports by wearing a palestinian flag emblazoned on their kits in 2016 as part of the student union’s campaign large involvement in the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions movement.

The few public records of ‘flag flying policies’ within colleges, such as Oriel College (Harris Manchester’s policies were not publicly available), suggest that a stringent and very controlled approach is taken across all colleges. It is unclear how the college facilitated the raising of this flag, as even a JCR motion calling for this action would not have been binding for College leadership, who would likely have voiced concerns regarding the associations arising from such a public political endorsement, and it is unclear whether this should be viewed as a an advocacy for Palestine by the college or by the students. Harris Manchester’s JCR has, as yet, not released any public statements regarding Israel or Palestine. 

It was only as recently as 2011 that Wadham became the first Oxford college to fly the rainbow pride flag, which was then hailed as unprecedented progress for public support of LGBTQ+ issues, and eventually prompted every college to follow their lead.

With the increased protests and movements in solidarity with Palestine, Harris Manchester raising this flag undoubtedly breaks new ground and will perhaps reveal possibilities for Oxford students in confronting the divide between what our University is willing to do, and what is demanded. The inherent weaknesses of JCR/MCR democracies have been badly exposed by recent events at the University, such as the Christ Church JCR racism scandal of Trinity 2020, or by the ineffectiveness of Magdalen JCR in their handling of the controversies surrounding their president Dinah Rose in Hilary Term this year. Of course the ongoing belligerence and inconsistency of Oriel college in their refusal to follow not only the mass student support of #Rhodesmustfall, but even an independent commission’s advice. There is an impetus for change at the University, but are any of the addressed problems being actively resolved by the many independent bodies including colleges that represent the University at large?

The raising of the flag seems symbolic of a shifting relationship between college and university bodies and students. It would almost seem that the collegiate system is tailor-made for establishing more representative organisations through its unique decentralisation of the student body. Students of the University have coalesced and formed many movements in support of anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rhetoric, the removal of imperialist figures from college grounds, and Palestine’s plight, but more material results must be demanded, and JCRs should force their colleges to take them seriously–to fear them even. Perhaps we should reassess how we ‘mobilise’ and evaluate the old strategies and tactics so that we can find better methods and repertoires of contention.