A British university has been accused of breaching the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to share details concerning its relation with Israeli institutions.
The body regulating data protection in the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found the University of Manchester (UoM) in violation of the government act issued in 2000 by not disclosing information requested by a student activist over its relations with controversial Israeli institutions.
The complaint against UoM was made by one of its students who had tried unsuccessfully to obtain details about the nature of the university’s relation with Israeli organisations. In its decision seen by MEMO, ICO instructed Manchester University to provide a response to the request within 35 days, in accordance with its obligations under the FOIA.
ICO’s sharp criticism of the University comes on the back of a long standoff between UoM and pro-Palestinian student activists. In March, UoM sparked anger by deciding to discipline students supporting the BDS campaign. The University claimed that the students were punished for “trespassing on a roof during Israeli Apartheid Week” but the students said their protest was meant to put pressure on UoM to “divest from firms that abet the apartheid regime of Israel”.
The students had requested more transparency from the university over its dealing with Israeli organisations. Complainant British-Palestinian student Huda Ammori told MEMO that her suspicion was raised in 2013 when she said she noticed Technion, a leader in the field of research and development within the Israeli arms trade, advertised “proudly” on the University’s website.
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Ammori said that she was equally surprised by the University’s decision to honour the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. She later discovered that the University has a shrine of Israel’s first President, Weizmann, in its chemistry building. Describing it as a “mockery of the suffering of the Palestinian people, who suffer under the regime he plotted”.
Ammori confirmed that the University also partnered with all three institutions he founded: Technion, Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University. Techinon was founded before 1948 to develop the Zionist regime, and remains a leader in the field of arms research for the Israeli occupation forces.
MEMO learnt that several FOI requests were made by students involved in the BDS campaign. Manchester University confirmed this saying: “The Freedom of Information requests are both being processed in the normal way, and would be responded to in line with [our] obligations.”
ICO’s decision suggests that the University has failed in its promise to fulfil its obligations under FOIA and instead decided to adopt an uncompromising position against students demanding information about the extent of its relation with Israeli organisations.
The decision by the ICO is seen as an important step in the campaign against unethical university investment. Activists are hoping that the ICO will take the University to the high court for contempt if it fails to answer to the students’ requests. “It is unacceptable,” said Huda, “that they [UoM] are withholding such information, especially from paying students at the university.”
The UoM told MEMO: “We can confirm that we have received a letter from the ICO and we are considering our response.”