British academics forgo boycott call
By Tamara Traubman, Haaretz, 29 September 2007
Britain's University and College Union (UCU) announced on Friday that it is dropping its controversial plans to boycott Israeli universities, after it decided that the proposed boycott would be illegal and could not be implemented.
The UCU had been considering whether to halt funding, visits, conferences and joint publishing with Israeli institutions. In May, the union voted in favor of promoting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Additionally, the UCU's proposed boycott would have accused Israeli scholars of "cooperating in the occupation" of the Palestinian territories, which the motion said had denied education to Palestinians. The decision was extensively criticized by many, including former British prime minister Tony Blair, the heads of the leading British universities and numerous North American academics.
Since then, the UCU has sought extensive legal advice in order to try to implement congress policy while protecting the position of members and the union.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni welcomed the UCU's decision. "The suspension of the impending boycott is important news for Israeli academia. It supports the internationally held view that limiting freedom of speech in academia is inherently wrong," she said. It "proves that joint efforts can foil a cynical political move to undermine Israel's international legitimacy," she added.
Livni asked her British counterpart, David Miliband, about the issue at a meeting over the weekend. Livni also asked Miliband about a legal loophole that allows Israeli security officials to be tried in U.K. courts.
Ophir Frenkel, the executive director of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, a panel established by Bar-Ilan University to coordinate the campaign against the boycott, also praised the UCU's decision. "The UCU has finally understood that an academic boycott is not a legitimate measure of political protest," Frenkel said.
Israel's ambassador to Britain, Zvi Hefetz, said that he hopes the UCU's proposed boycott would be "the last such attempt with which we are forced to contend and act to nullify."
Hefetz said that over the past years, the embassy has halted similar initiatives by the architects and journalists associations. "I hope the cancellation of this boycott will serve as a signal to other organizations and help put a stop to these efforts."
However, the UCU is still examining other sanctions against Israeli academic institutions. These may include a suspension of joint Israel-British research projects.
Boycott could violate U.K. law
The legal advice the UCU received indicates that calling for a boycott of Israeli institutions would run a serious risk of violating U.K. anti-discrimination legislation. The proposed boycott is also considered to be outside the aims and objects of the UCU. A campus tour to discuss the boycott was also suspended, based on the legal advice.
UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said, "While UCU is at liberty to debate the pros and cons of Israeli policies, it cannot spend members' resources on seeking to test opinion on something which is in itself unlawful and cannot be implemented."
In 2003, a proposal for British universities to sever all ties with Israeli academic institutions was defeated, but two years later Britain's Association of University Teachers - the UCU's predecessor - voted to boycott Israel's Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities. That decision was overturned only a month later, under fierce international pressure.
Barak Ravid contributed to this article.
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