Academics’ motion seen as a boycott by the back door

The University and College Union lived up to expectations on Wednesday by carrying a motion at its annual conference in Manchester that has been challenged as an attempt to reintroduce a boycott of Israeli academics by the back door.

Tom Hickey, the philosophy lecturer from the University of Brighton behind the motion, said the UCU was “urging people to reflect on whether it was appropriate for them to maintain their links with Israeli institutions”.

The motion talked about the “apparent complicity of most of the Israeli academy” and resolved that “colleagues be asked to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating”.

But while the UCU tried to convince a doubting world that the motion was about solidarity with Palestinian academics rather than boycotting Israelis, critics were cautiously optimistic that the exercise could suffer the same fate as last year’s attempt.

After the motion was carried without opposition — there were an estimated 400-500 delegates present out of a membership of up to 120,000 — observers pointed to a comment made by UCU general secretary Sally Hunt, who said: “Implementation of the motion with the law will now fall to the national executive committee.”

They saw this as a clear indication that the union’s executive must ensure the motion is scrutinised in detail by its legal advisers. Ironically, the first motion passed by the congress this year called for the naming and shaming of universities and colleges that failed to implement anti-discrimination law.

Jeremy Newmark, joint chair of the Stop The Boycott campaign, who was at the conference, said: “UCU chose to ignore both its own legal advice and the legal opinion sought by Stop the Boycott. Our legal opinion, produced at the request of UCU members, has shown that this motion promoted discrimination. But the union moved ahead with the debate as if none of it mattered.

“The motion passed overwhelmingly, in part because of [UCU president] Linda Newman and Sally Hunt’s insistence that it was pretty harmless and not a boycott. The procedure during the debate was a total mess, with confusion over an amendment. In the end, there were no speeches against the main motion.”

Mr Newmark added: “This motion calls for UCU members to consider whether they should cut off their links with Israeli universities, to speak to any Israelis they know and complain to them about Israel’s actions. This is a boycott motion, and attempts to pretend otherwise are disingenuous and wrong.”

Bicom chief executive Lorna Fitzsimons, Mr Newmark’s co-chair, said: “What was true last year remains true today. Boycotts of any kind do nothing to promote peace and moderation in the Middle East, while undermining the academic freedom and integrity of British academic institutions.

“As a trade unionist myself, I find it astounding that the union was prepared to contradict its founding principles of protection in the workplace.”

Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel, commented: “It beggars belief that such a blatant ‘McCarthyite’ demand, which we believe is in clear violation of the UK Race Relations Act, is allowed to be published and debated by a union that prides itself on supporting academic freedom.

“Neither the union nor many congress delegates have accepted that by passing this motion, it has become institutionally racist by creating a discriminatory atmosphere towards Jewish academics, many of whom are members of the UCU.”

Professor David Newman, of Ben-Gurion University’s Politics and Government Department, who is the representative of Israeli universities in the UK, told the JC that the UCU’s continuing attempts to boycott Israel were having the opposite effect.

“These repeated efforts to boycott Israeli academics and the Israeli academy will have a very limited influence on the serious scientific research and the new collaborative projects the two countries share,” Professor Newman said.

“Surprisingly, ever since their struggle was launched, the academic relations between Israel and the UK have only strengthened. However, they can’t renounce their responsibility for the atmosphere they have created in which students and academic staff find it hard to work,” he added.

Professor Gideon Doron, president of the Israeli Political Science Association at Tel Aviv University, told the JC: “We are not dealing with academics, but with a political group, who among other things happen to work in universities. Academic people work to promote science, humanity and the wellbeing of humankind. These people use their profession as an excuse to make political capital.”

    Last updated: 5:12pm, July 22 2009