New academic boycott plan meets swift resistance

A thinly veiled attempt by the University and College Union national executive to reintroduce an academic boycott of Israel by the back door has brought a swift communal response.

The Stop The Boycott campaign, launched to defeat last year’s proposal — successfully — has been reactivated, and communal leaders have spoken out strongly against the UCU executive.

A motion called “Palestine and the Occupation” by Tom Hickey of the Socialist Workers Party, and seconded by UCU president Linda Newman, who made anti-boycott statements prior to her election last year, will be tabled at the union’s conference, due to be held in Manchester in May.

The motion talks about the “apparent complicity of the Israeli academy”. This has been interpreted as encompassing all Israeli educational institutions, not just universities and colleges.

There are fears that the motion, if adopted, would encourage a so-called silent boycott, whereby Israelis would not know if a paper was being rejected on grounds of quality or boycott. It might also encourage UCU members to follow the lead of Mona Baker. In 2002, Prof Baker of UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, now part of Manchester University), fired two Israelis, Miriam Schlesinger and Gideon Toury, from the boards of two academic journals which she edited, because they were Israeli academics.

Jon Pike, chairman of the antisemitism-monitoring group Engage, who will be joining the UCU national executive after its conference, said: “This is very bad news for the UCU. People are angry and frustrated that once again this will drag the union away from its primary function, which is improving pay and conditions for its members, into a damaging debate about a boycott that is opposed by the majority of British academia. I agree with its general secretary Sally Hunt about that. If it goes through it will reflect very badly on the union.”

Dr Pike said he was “perplexed” by the apparent volte-face of Linda Newman, who sent Engage a letter last year in which she pledged to seek increased contact between Israeli and Palestinian academics, saying that an earlier call for a boycott was “ineffective”.

Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies, said: “Last year’s successful campaign to defeat the previous boycott proposal demonstrated that our community is committed and able to deliver an effective and hard-hitting response to boycotts wherever they come from. STB will once again co-ordinate the community’s efforts with those partners inside the UCU to overturn these flawed proposals.”

Lorna Fitzsimons, chief executive of Bicom and co-chair of Stop the Boycott, said: “Has the UCU not learned anything? Its own legal advice, which it has refused to publish, said the boycott it wanted last year was illegal and discriminatory, so much so that it kicked out the motion. We are now seeking our own legal advice to do what the union refuses to do.”

Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council and co-chair of STB, said: “UCU members overwhelmingly believe that boycotts are bad for British academia, bad for the Palestinians and do nothing to promote peace in the Middle East.”

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Motions to be debated at UCU Congress will be considered, amended and decided in the coming weeks. Delegates will then have the opportunity to debate those motions, as is their right.”

The JC asked for an interview with president Linda Newman to ask her about her comments last year, but she did not respond.

Meanwhile, an Israeli-based anti-boycott initiative, the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, has remained frozen for more than three months because of a lack of funds, the JC has learned.

Its founding director, Ofir Frankel, said that despite promises of support from Israel’s universities and Ministry of Education, the money had not been forthcoming.

“We were in enough debt to understand we couldn’t do it any more. I was operating from my own home, using my own phone, paying for my own flights,” she said.

She had sought a budget of around £125,000, arguing that promoting long-term academic relationships between Israel and the UK was the way to “kill it [the boycott] from the roots”.

Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel in the UK, described the lack of financial support for the IAB as a “backward step”.

    Last updated: 9:31am, June 3 2008