Union gets legal threat over boycott

The University and College Union has been warned of legal repercussions if it passes a motion calling on members to review links with Israel at its congress in Manchester next week.

Lawyers advising the Stop the Boycott Campaign say that the resolution — backed by the union’s own executive — is tantamount to support for boycott action already deemed unlawful.

But Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, denied that there was any call for a boycott.

A copy of the 21-page legal opinion from QCs Michael Beloff and Pushpinder Saini was sent to Ms Hunt by  Jewish leaders this week, who urged  the union to consider it “with care”.

The lawyers say that the motion, if passed, would “expose Jewish members of the union to indirect discrimination” under the Race Relations Act.

They argue that UCU would also breach its own rules by asking members “to undertake acts of harassment and discrimination against others on the grounds of national origins”.

At last year’s congress, UCU voted to circulate a call from Palestinian organisations to boycott Israel. But the union was later forced to backtrack, telling members that a boycott call would be “unlawful and cannot be implemented”, following advice from leading human rights lawyer Lord Lester.

Next week’s motion, proposed by the branches of Brighton and East London Docklands Universities and UCU’s executive, asks members 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 threatens to place Ariel College on the West Bank on the union’s “greylist” of censured institutions. According to the legal opinion given to Stop the Boycott, the motion represents an attempt to “circumvent” the previous legal restrictions. “In our view, this attempt at circumvention fails,” the lawyers declared.

It was forwarded to the union in a letter signed by Henry Grunwald, the president of the Board of Deputies, and four other members of the Jewish Leadership Council.

David Hirsh, editor of the anti-boycott website, Engage, said: “The leadership of the UCU is in a dream world where contempt for Israelis is normal and respectable. 

“Our union needs to make the case for education in Britain and for university and college workers. It doesn’t need to be in court being found guilty of institutional racism.”

Ms Hunt said it was not for the UCU to comment on “legal advice received by other organisations”. But she added: “There is no call for a boycott: the motions to congress call for a wider debate about what is happening over there…

“I have made it quite clear on a number of occasions that my personal view is that a boycott of all Israeli academic institutions is not the best way to promote a just peace.”

The JC also understands that at least four complaints of antisemitism have been made to the UCU over comments on its internal activists’ email forum.


What the lawyers advised over the UCU motion

“There is little doubt that the motion has been drafted in an attempt to circumvent the legal restrictions on the powers of the union to mandate a direct boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In our view, this attempt at circumvention fails.”

“What is to be recommended or directed by the union if the motion is passed is, in essence, no different to that which the union was previously advised was unlawful.”

“The substance of the motion amounts to the encouragement or invitation to members of the union to discriminate against Israeli academics.”

“[If the resolution is passed] the Union will, accordingly, be adopting a provision, criterion or practice which will put Jewish members at a particular disadvantage compared to non-Jewish members. That is because Jewish members are much more likely to have links with Israeli academics and institutions than non-Jewish members.”

“We understand, from the history of the boycott issue, that there is evidence before the union of the effects that previous debates have had on Jewish members. Indeed, it appears that many members resigned from the union because of the anti-Jewish atmosphere created following the previous boycott motions.”

    Last updated: 9:44am, May 27 2008