The Jeremy Bentham Room Occupation: Highlighting UCL’s role in the Suppression of the Palestinian People

Sirjan Narang and Robert Delaney 

UCL Action for Palestine (AFP), a Palestinian advocacy group not affiliated with the Students’ Union and with membership from across the student and staff community at UCL, has been at the centre of campus activism in recent months. Their ongoing occupation of the Jeremy Bentham Room highlights the growing tensions between the students and UCL management who have maintained a stance of “political neutrality” since the start of the Israel-Gaza war in October 2023. 

The group’s goals include raising awareness about the situation in Palestine and pressuring UCL to take a stronger stance in support of Palestinian human rights. They have organised a series of marches and protests since the start of this year. The first term 2 action began on the 25th of January, which involved students tying ribbons to the trees in the Japanese garden and the main quad in honour of thousands of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli forces since October. The action was undertaken to protest UCL’s lack of acknowledgement of the death of Dr Refaat Alareer, a Palestinian writer, poet, professor, activist and an alumnus of UCL, who was killed by an Israeli Airstrike. Management instructed cleaning staff to remove the ribbons with the removal occurring within 24 hours of their initial placement, this being the second time UCL had removed such ribbons. An AFP member said this act “sent a message that the management views the memorial as something to be discarded.” A second-year fine arts student speaking to The Cheese Grater found the university’s response “outrageous” and felt “the university prioritised its image over human rights” as even a “harmless, passive, act of solidarity [was] taken down”.

Another demonstration, which took place on the 7th of February, demanded the renaming of the Student Centre after Dr Refaat Alareer also faced obstacles from UCL management. The protest commenced at the student centre, where Cheese Grater reporters witnessed protesters being told by security present there that the Student Centre had become a “no protest zone”. AFP’s statement on this event also emphasised that “security filmed students and ushered intimidating threats asking protesters to leave Refaat Alareer Student Centre whilst singling out and targeting minority students”. This protest consisted of an estimated 200 students and staff and was also calling out for the divestment from arms companies which are partnered with UCL and are profiting from the genocide in Gaza. AFP told The Cheese Grater that “we renamed the Student Centre in memory of Dr Refaat Alareer because UCL has again failed and refused to make a statement or create a memorial for him. So that’s yet another thing that we as students, are taking upon ourselves because the management of the university is failing to do so. We also gathered in the Main Quad for a rally, where we had several speeches targeted at the censorship students are facing and UCL’s myth of political neutrality”. Despite AFP receiving some backlash from the management for its protests, it has also been successful numerous times. A networking event with BAE systems organised by the UCL Mechanical Engineering Society for 28th February, was cancelled due to an email campaign put on by UCL Student Justice for Palestine,(a Students’ Union affiliated society for Palestine) and AFP. Small achievements have motivated the student group to continue the actions till UCL management meets their demands. 

In response to the newly implemented ban on protesting in the Student Centre and to create an atmosphere of pressure on the management, UCL AFP escalated their actions by occupying the Jeremy Bentham Room on March 14th and declaring it an “Apartheid free zone”. 

The occupation is part of a wider call to action. UCL AFP’s statement on the occupation lists 10 demands; they plan to occupy until their demands are ratified. 

Demands to the management include:

  • Cuts all ties with arms companies and companies on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) list. (BAE Systems, Elbert Systems, Babcock and Lockheed Martin)
  • Practices full transparency regarding all funding, sponsorships, research partnerships and collaborations with arms and fossil fuel companies.
  • Stops banking with Barclays, which holds over 1 billion in shares and provides 3 billion in loans to companies which directly support Israel’s apartheid and its genocidal attack on Gaza.
  • Directs a pot of funds of at least £250,000 ring-fenced for scholarships available to Palestinian students to study at UCL. 
  • Makes official the student-led renaming of Refaat AlAreer Student Centre and an institutional acknowledgement of his contributions. 
  • Adds its institutional voice to the global call for an immediate, permanent, and sustainable ceasefire. 
  • Ending censorship and criminalisation of pro-Palestinian activism.

Demands to the Student’s Union include: 

  • Bans societies from inviting arms and fossil fuel companies on campus.
  • Commits to establishing Apartheid Free Zones on SU spaces across campus (cafes, bars, etc)
  • Practices full transparency regarding all funding, sponsorships, partnerships and collaborations which involve the union and its affiliated societies.

The demands of the occupation centre around UCL’s financial complicity. A spokesperson for UCL Action for Palestine informed The Cheese Grater that “UCL careers have direct partnerships with arms companies and weapons companies like BAE Systems and Elbit Systems and Babcock and Lockheed Martin…these are the very companies that the IDF are buying their missiles and their weapons from that are then being used to decimate Palestinians”. Demilitarise UCL’s most recent report also highlights UCL’s partnerships with Arms Companies: UCL has partnerships with several companies that manufacture and sell weapons to Israel, including BAE Systems, Airbus, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin, Babcock, Chemring, Qinetiq, Rolls Royce, and Thales. These partnerships involve funding, joint research projects, and student recruitment opportunities. The report remarks that the Department of Space and Climate Physics partners with BAE Systems, Airbus and Leonardo on training programs for delivering complex engineering projects. Similarly, it also states that “the Centre for Systems Engineering is sponsored/partnered by BAE Systems”. This financial link extends to specific degrees as well. The report displays MSc in Technology Management lists Airbus, BAE Systems, Boeing, GE, Leonardo, and Thales as typical graduate destinations. Likewise, BAE Systems is a destination for graduates of the MSc in Naval Architecture program and is a sponsor  program alongside Siemens.The other UCL departments with partnerships with arms companies mentioned in the report include Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Marine Engineering. These connections between UCL and arms companies that supply the Israeli military raise concerns about Palestinian human rights. By providing a pipeline of skilled graduates and fostering research collaboration, UCL’s partnerships financially contribute to the production and development of weapons used against Palestinians. This cycle of funding and recruitment displays indirect support by the UCL management towards the genocide of the Palestinian people.

The occupied Jeremy Bentham Room, which has been expressed by UCL AFP as a “space of solidarity” that applies “consistent pressure on UCL and UCL management”, has been a place for education, art, film screenings, cultural exposure and peaceful protest over recent weeks as a means of inspiring the “depoliticised student body” into action. A spokesperson for UCL AFP told The Cheese Grater that, “many students are very much not aware that UCL is playing an active role in the genocide”; UCL AFP are actively trying to reverse this widespread and unfortunate ignorance. The spokesperson went on to state that they chose the Jeremy Bentham Room because of its longstanding association with student activism as “the room had been occupied once before [in protest of tuition fees in 2010], and there was a precedent there already”. They also chose the Jeremy Bentham Room due to the centrality of its location on campus and its “symbolism, being situated next to the Octagon… which has an exhibition stating that ‘there is no university without students’”.  

An Anthropology student speaking to The Cheese Grater described the occupation as “a safe, powerful space with a purpose and a strong sense of community aiming to make UCL a better place”. Some events that have taken place during the occupation have included teach-ins by Palestinian academics on Palestinian literature and struggle alongside workshops on resistance art and culture and de-colonisation. Other activities like open mics, dance lessons on Capoeira, banner making and community iftar dinners have also taken place. AFP informed The Cheese Grater that an estimate of “200-250 people” have been “in and out in a day”, and that they have aimed to “cultivate a space not just for the general body but for Palestinians”. 

An AFP spokesperson told The Cheese Grater that “Palestinians who have visited, had said that they felt really represented”. The spokesperson also noted that some Palestinians who visited “were in tears because they’ve never felt safe in a space like this before”. A Bartlett student who also spoke to The Cheese Grater mentioned that the occupation provides “a beautiful sense of solidarity and community” which he finds “is all too absent in huge corporate institutions like UCL”. For the past few weeks the occupation has been run on donations and consists of a variety of foods, at least 7-15 students are sleeping overnight daily, along with students taking night shifts to guard the doors of the occupation to prevent any form of disruption. Numerous student testimonies, both in interviews and online, reflect what UCL AFP has deemed as a “very positive” student reaction to the occupation and the cultivation of a peaceful, but pertinent, space for solidarity with the Palestinian people on campus. 

However, the occupation has had its obstacles from the very beginning. On the second day of the occupation itself, police were called by an anti-Palestinian student who claimed a banner stating “apartheid free zone” with a kite on it promoted “hate speech”. They also claimed the kite had a resemblance to a paraglider in reference to the October 7th attack by Hamas forces in Israel. It is important to note that the kite is a well-known symbol of Palestinian freedom and hope, and did not glorify the attacks on October 7th. Around eight to ten officers arrived and requested the banner’s removal, however, due to the lack of basis for the complaint, they left the scene. A spokesperson for UCL AFP noted the incident to have been “quite civil” and very brief in the end. 

This incident wasn’t the only challenge. AFP told The Cheese Grater that on multiple occasions pro-Israel students disrupted the occupation by “storming into the room and aggressively repeating racist anti-Palestinian slogans”, sometimes while intoxicated. Despite these disruptions, the student group has remained “determined and resilient, in continuing their occupation” and plans on maintaining their “no engagement policy” to any disruptions. The spokesperson also noted that “there has been so many more examples of solidarity with support, and we do not want the instances of disruption to overshadow the work that’s happening here and the Palestinian voices are being uplifted” 

Whilst opposition to the occupation has manifested on campus, the support from the University and College Union (UCU) and the IWGB union has further strengthened AFP’s resolve. Both Unions have posted statements in complete solidarity with the protest and have claimed they will oppose if “any attempts by management” are made “to evict/discipline students involved”; they will also be “supporting events and activities taking place” in the occupation; they will also “support students facing disciplinary action for their participation in apartheid free zone”. UCL Unison also expressed support during a visit to the apartheid-free zone in late March.  

UCL AFP finds UCL management’s silence as a further sign of their complicity in the genocide of Palestinians. AFP expressed to The Cheese Grater that “students pay thousands of pounds in fees and we have a right to know where that money is going, where that money is being used and if it’s being used to kill Palestinians, we don’t agree with that and we have a right to say we’re not happy with the way fees are being used. When we often see these institutions hesitating on making statements or picking a side, that’s quite reflective of their complicity … We saw this with UCL’s history with eugenics. They tried to stay silent and stay away from it as much as possible. But in the end, they did have to admit to it, and that was a really good example, actually, of student pressure”. The current occupation of the Jeremy Bentham Room displays AFP’s commitment to sustaining consistent pressure on UCL management. The actions that have taken place this past year have received a lot of support from students and staff alike, with many grassroots movements expressing solidarity with the occupation across the UCL community. Though the actions have contributed to enhancing support and awareness for the Palestine cause, The Cheese Grater is unclear how the occupation has impacted the UCL management.

The occupation of the Jeremy Bentham Room shows the power of student organisation in highlighting UCL’s complicity with genocide. As noted by an AFP spokesperson, “UCL’s silence is reflective of their complicity with genocide, their neutrality is fundamentally reflective of their role”. Like with UCL’s eventual acceptance of fault after constant deflection for the institution’s historic ties to eugenics in 2020 or the institution’s eventual divestment from pro-Apartheid companies in South Africa during the 1980s, student protest is the only effective means of holding the institution to account. In cultivating a space where “students can express their grievances with the institution”, UCL AFP and other groups associated with student activism on campus have posed a much-needed challenge to the unchecked actions of UCL in its support of inhumanity in Gaza. Indeed, as one spokesperson for UCL AFP noted, “Students need to use what tools they have to keep the university to account [as] students are the future, and we need to start broadening what we do away from just getting grades, to how we actively make a change in society, and this starts on campus”.