Academic union could face legal action on ‘backdoor boycott’

By Leon Symons, June 5, 2008

The University and College Union will almost certainly face legal action if its executive decides to turn into policy the “back-door boycott” motion on Israel passed at its congress last week.

Senior lawyer Anthony Julius, acting on behalf of what he called a “growing number” of Jewish and non-Jewish UCU members, has written to UCU general secretary Sally Hunt setting out four areas where he said the union could be challenged legally. He argued that:

1) The motion, despite the union’s denials, is a boycott motion;

2) It is antisemitic;

3) Because of the first two points, the UCU and its trustees could be sued, according to a legal opinion produced for the Stop The Boycott campaign;

4) There would also be a claim by members for harassment under the Race Relations Act.

Mr Julius, a consultant at law firm Mishcon de Reya, told the JC this week: “I think the union has to stop being antisemitic and promoting antisemitism. Its denial of antisemitism is something to be taken into account, but it is hardly convincing.

“This is a matter of members expressing concern and finding appropriate ways to express that concern.”

The JC asked the UCU for an interview with Ms Hunt, but a spokesman responded that the union would be in a better position to discuss what the motion meant after the national executive meeting, due to be held on June 13.

The UCU has draw fire from all sides since the vote, including from Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell. He said boycotts were “the complete antithesis of academic freedom” and appealed to the union to reconsider when he spoke on the last day of the conference.

“I profoundly disagree with cutting links with Israeli academics. That doesn’t mean people can’t, or shouldn’t, criticise Israeli government decisions and policies. Boycotting academics because of their nationality I find deeply disturbing and there is no evidence that such a strategy would further the cause of peace in the Middle East,” he told delegates.

Visiting Israel and the territories last year, he met both Israelis and Palestinians “who were totally opposed to a boycott. The problem with boycotts is that they make the job of the progressives more difficult and they reinforce the position of reactionaries. It’s your decision but I would urge you to think again,” he said.

Colin Shindler, who was appointed last week as professor of Israel studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, said that the more often boycott resolutions came up, the more students were joining his course on the Israel-Palestine conflict — including many Arab and Muslim students.

“I will not resign from the union. I will disobey the union’s instructions on the boycott. I regard the resolution’s movers as poor trades-unionists, since they have not defended my interests as an academic teacher of Israeli studies, but regard their own political views as more important,” said Professor Shindler.

Jon Pike, chairman of the anti-boycott group Engage, said his analysis of the situation was that “an elaborate and silly game” was being played.

“The boycotters know that to implement a boycott would be illegal. They are, therefore, not serious in pushing for one in UCU. What they are serious about is stirring things up every year at UCU congress. They need to hide that process from members by avoiding a ballot, and they know it is likely to be thwarted by legal advice to the union,” said Mr Pike, who has been elected to the national executive.

“They know they are going to lose. But they want to lose to the big bad lawyers, so they don’t lose face. It’s a stupid game that I don’t think means much in terms of Israel and the Palestinians but it is immensely damaging to the union.”

He said “tens of people” had told him they were considering resigning “but I would urge them to stay in and fight from within. I have heard people talking about an alternative but I don’t think there’s a strong likelihood of that happening.”

Prof Shalom Lappin, of the department of philosophy at King’s College London, resigned from the UCU over last year’s boycott move and has strong views on what should be done.

“Britain is regarded as the boycott capital of the world,” he said. “These people are determined to do this. I resigned from UCU because it is dominated by people for whom this is an obsession.

“There is no point in arguing with the leaders of the boycott campaign.Our ongoing attempts to do so have simply provided an incentive for further bigoted provocation. Nothing will change because it is politically acceptable to do this sort of thing. A very strong stand needs to be taken, including legal action if necessary.

“This is not just about academics. Jewish and Israeli students on many UK campuses are frequently exposed to a hostile environment and systematic harassment, with most university administrators refusing to take action to deal with this problem.”

Professor Dina Porat, head of the Stephen Roth Institute for Research on Current Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, said: “The rationale that motivates British academics who work to impose the boycott is that Israeli academia agrees with and supports the policy of the Israeli government. But it is a mistake to claim that Israeli academics do not criticise, and even harshly, Israeli policy in the territories.”

Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution in London, who has encouraged and supported research as a response to the boycott, said: “This is a lose-lose situation. If you are suppressing academia and research in any way, someone will lose out sooner or later; whether in healthcare or scholarships, it has to be bad for society. It’s a no-brainer — no one is gaining.

“It would be interesting to know how many people proposing the boycott have actually been to Israel and understand the situation. I have heard from many people that they feel the rise of antisemitism in England. It may be not so much antisemitism but a general xenophobia that exists in the UK.”

Professor Haim Rabinowitz, rector of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, blamed pro-boycotters for acting “as thieves in the night.

“Those who use higher education for political purposes, whose basis is equal opportunity for all, but close it for one group, should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.

John Levy, director of the Academic Study Group for Israel and the Middle East (ASG), said it was impossible to tell whether or not a hidden boycott was taking place.

“There is, no doubt, a hidden boycott that may be carried out by those who will say ‘sorry, I am not available,’ without giving their reasons. So it is very difficult to assess precisely how much of a boycott is being practised. Even though I can’t say that many have turned us down, any boycott would hurt us directly,” Mr Levy said.

He said only one person had cancelled participation in the workshops ASG runs in Israel on political grounds.

Ronnie Fraser, chair of the Academic Friends of Israel, pointed to the apathy of universities in tackling campus antisemitism.

“The UCU has once again let down its membership because it has failed to realise that this resolution feeds into and fuels the anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli atmosphere on campus, which makes for an uncomfortable environment for Jewish students and academics.

“This situation is not helped on campus by the lack of action by the university authorities themselves who have said in the past that they are concerned about the levels of antisemitism.

“As long ago as February 2003, the then president of Universities UK wrote to the vice-chancellors of British universities, urging them to be vigilant against the rise in antisemitism on British campuses,” he said.

Professor David Newman of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, who is the representative of seven Israeli universities in Britain, told the JC this week that Israeli universities tended to leave dealing with the question of a boycott to the formal governmental authorities.

“They believe that the reciprocal research relations between Israel and the UK are strong and cannot be affected by politics,” Prof Newman said.

“On the other hand, with no actual financial resources which the universities put on the table for public-relations purposes, I can’t really operate for the improvement of the academic relations between the two countries.”

From Anthony Julius’s letter to the UCU’s Sally Hunt

"[The UCU motion] is a craven version of a boycott motion. It is antisemitic because:

  • It is irrational. It is no different in character to a motion that resolves to boycott all Jewish-owned businesses considered delinquent, but no other businesses, though similarly or more delinquent.
  • It is continuous with episodes in antisemitism’s history, in its stipulation that Jews (‘Israeli colleagues’) submit to questioning on their views as a precondition to continued collaboration with UCU members, which revives the antisemitic programme that what others may enjoy as of right, Jews must work for; in its conceptualising of the Israel/Palestine conflict as a melodrama (pure villain confronting pure victim), which reproduces the antisemitic scenario of wicked Jews preying upon defenceless and innocent gentiles; [and] in its proposed boycott of Jews. The history of antisemitism is in substantial part the history of boycotts of Jews.
  • It is indifferent to the pain it will cause Jewish members [and] indifferent to the antisemitism it will foster. And it is just the latest discreditable manifestation of UCU’s culpable indifference towards Jewish union members."
Last updated: 3:28pm, June 6 2008