Here we go again: it’s brainless boycott time

The recurring UCU motions for academic boycott are now hardly noticed in Israel

By David Newman, June 4, 2009

Once again, the University and College Union passed a motion condemning Israel at its annual convention. Once again it recommended boycotting Israeli universities. Once again, this will have negligible impact on academic links between the two countries.

This time, the Israeli media have given it very little coverage. Academics were mostly unaware that the issue had come up again, while those who have scientific links with their UK counterparts all reported that these had not been affected in any way.

As the representative of Israel’s universities in the UK for the past two years, I have met countless senior British academics. The university heads show their dislike for the antics of the UCU even more than their Israeli colleagues, not least because of the way that the continued focus on Israel has given their institutions a bad name, especially in North America. The university heads have other things on their mind, not least ensuring the financial viability of their institutions in a period of economic recession. Regardless of whether, as individuals, they like or dislike Israel, they are interested in developing strong research links with top scientists and scholars throughout the world — many of whom come from Israeli universities.

Most of my Israeli colleagues prefer to work directly with their colleagues in the British universities. Many do not buy into the simplistic counter-claims of collective antisemitism, which has become the main counter boycott message. While it would be naïve to pretend that there has not been a growth of antisemitism in the UK, including within the campus communities, we find that the vast majority of our colleagues in the UK want information and knowledge, and prefer direct contact with their academic colleagues — the people who are actually targeted by the boycott motions.

While many British academics may be highly critical of certain Israeli government policies, that does not make them antisemites or instant boycotters, and the overuse of this argument is often self-defeating.

There are many practical steps which can be undertaken. Concerned faculty in the UK should continue to invite Israeli colleagues to research symposia, seminars and conferences . They should provide opportunities for faculty to come on sabbatical leave or as post-doctoral fellows to their own institutions. For their part, my Israeli colleagues must ensure that they continue to visit British universities for research collaboration (the decision by some not to travel to the UK any more is perhaps the one tangible act of boycott implementation — self implemented — over and beyond the meaningless and repetitive declarations of the UCU).

Ironically, the scientific links between the two countries have strengthened in the past few years. The recently established bilateral research BIRAX initiative has been heavily oversubscribed by both British and Israeli scientific teams, while the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East continues to bring groups of British scientists to Israel for joint seminars and research discussions. Political opinions may be divided among us, but we are united on one fact — boycotts are destructive and totally self-defeating.

David Newman is professor of Political Geography at Ben Gurion University in Israel and represents Israel’s universities on matters relating to the academic boycott

    Last updated: 10:56am, June 4 2009