Israel advocates in the UK have welcomed news that the Charity Commission is investigating whether students’ unions which support a boycott of Israel are in breach of their legal duty to represent members.
The investigation, reported by the BBC on Thursday, will centre on the unions’ political activity and whether this oversteps their remit as registered charities.
Jonathan Turner, chairman of UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), said the Commission’s move was welcome but “long overdue”.
There are now 17 students’ unions across the country that have voted to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in support of Palestinian rights and in protest at Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank, but Jewish student groups have long argued that this fuels anti-Semitism on campus.
Since students’ unions are registered charities, Turner said their focus should be on issues that affect the welfare of the union’s members, not on taking political actions concerning the Middle East.
“It is unlawful for a charity to engage in political activity, including political campaigning, which is not in support of its charitable objects,” he said.
“Students’ Unions’ charitable objects are to promote the education of students at that particular university. Punishing those pesky Israelis for actions and policies in the Middle East does not promote the education of students in London or Manchester.”
While it is lawful for a students’ union to hold an educational debate on the Middle East, Turner said: “There is a difference between that and political action, such as a boycott… Those things are illegal”.
The Commission’s intervention, while welcome, was “long overdue,” said Turner, adding: “Some people dismiss it as ‘just student politics,’ but it has serious consequences. Jewish students and supporters of Israel are being intimidated on campus.”