Challenge to renewed boycott bid

By Leon Symons, April 18, 2008

The University and College Union’s attempt to launch a new academic boycott of Israel could be scuppered by legal challenges from the anti-boycott movement.

The leaders of the Stop The Boycott campaign have confirmed that they will instruct lawyers to examine the legality of a motion to be put to the UCU’s annual conference next month.

Last year’s motion was halted by the union itself, but only after it had been warned by its own lawyers that it would have been illegal to proceed. The union has refused repeated requests to make public the advice it was given.

The UCU’s latest attempt to isolate Israel’s academics and educational institutions gained momentum this week when it published the draft motions for its conference. While the motion on Palestine does not specifically refer to a boycott, it calls for members “to 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”.

It also calls for “personal testimonies” from members who visited Palestine on a trades-union delegation in January “to promote a wide discussion by colleagues of the appropriateness of continued educational links with Israeli academic institutions”.

The motion has been tabled in the name of Tom Hickey of the Socialist Workers’ Party, who works at the University of Brighton.

Jeremy Newmark, of the Stop The Boycott campaign, said: “The attitude of the UCU leadership is utterly irresponsible. The president and general secretary have allowed a situation to emerge in which UCU’s policy is decided by the central committee of the Socialist Workers’ Party. In the face of its own legal advice, it is shameful that UCU would press ahead with a discredited and discriminatory policy.

“We are now seeking legal advice on this new boycott move, to empower regular UCU members in their attempt to force the union to abandon this destructive course of action. This is something that many UCU members have asked us to do.”

Lorna Fitzsimons, chief executive of Bicom, said: “Boycotts are obviously discriminatory. This boycott move puts new obstacles between Israelis and Palestinians and hurts the cause of peace.”

The JC understands that a number of legal avenues could be available for UCU members opposed to a boycott, ranging from an injunction to stop a debate taking place through to suing the union’s trustees if the policy is passed and the UCU implements it.

A union spokesman said: “UCU delegates at our conference will have the opportunity to debate and set policy for the union on a host of issues. The Palestine motion does not call for a boycott, but a wider debate about what is happening there. Both the general secretary and the president have made it quite clear on a number of occasions that they are against an academic boycott.”

Meanwhile, the UCU has also announced a lecture tour by four members of the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees. The tour starts on Monday — the second day of Pesach.

Last updated: 5:47pm, May 13 2008