Lecturers back boycott of Israel
By James Meikle, Education correspondent
Wednesday May 30, 2007
University lecturers today threatened to provoke international condemnation over academic freedom by forcing their union into a year-long debate over boycotting work with Israeli universities.
Delegates at the first conference of the new University and College Union in Bournemouth voted by more than three to two to recommend boycotts in protest at Israel's "40-year occupation" of Palestinian land and to condemn the "complicity" of Israeli academics.
The conference motion said there should be "a comprehensive and consistent boycott" of all Israeli academic institutions, as called for by Palestinian trade unions.
Delegates voted by 158 to 99 in favour of the motion. The union's leadership must now circulate calls from Palestinians for a boycott of Israeli universities to all branches throughout the country.
Tom Hickey, a Brighton University academic and union national executive member, who led the call for stronger moves towards a boycott, said: "There will be adverse effects on individuals, but this is not targeting individuals or trying to break contacts with them."
He said the vote in favour of a boycott call to all branches reflected "the deep concern" people have about the issue. A boycott could involve lecturers refusing to collaborate on research contracts with Israeli academics and refusing to work with journals published by Israeli companies.
However, Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the union, said: "I do not believe a boycott is supported by a majority of (the 120,000) UCU members; nor do I believe that members see it as a priority for the union."
Ofir Frankel, a spokesman for the Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, said: "This was a disappointment. We see it as discriminatory and counterproductive. It will make British academia look a little less serious." He added that it would also damage existing links between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs.
The decision was greeted with outrage among Jewish groups and activists. Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, said: "The UCU boycott motion is an assault on academic freedom. While the vast majority of academics do not support a boycott, this decision damages the credibility of British academia as a whole."
Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: "Now is the time to strengthen the kinds of relationships that will bring all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together and, in this country, create a better understanding of the complex issues through that engagement. We call upon the Union's leadership and all members who are rightly outraged by the decision to work towards a reversal of this policy."
Mitch Simmons, campaigns director for the Union of Jewish Students, said: "Academic freedom is part of the fabric of modern society. The exchange of information and the advancement of human knowledge should have no borders. Disappointingly, it seems that no value can be left unviolated by the proposers of this motion."
During the debate, which lasted well over an hour, Michael Cushman, from the London School of Economics, said: "Universities are to Israel what the springboks were to South Africa: the symbol of their national identity."
Israel wanted to claim it was a normal democratic state and universities were integral to that, Mr Cushman said. "[But] it is not a normal state. They are not normal universities.
"Senior academics move from universities into ministries and back again," he said.
"Regularly, lecturers take up their commissions in the Israeli Defence Force as reserve officers to go into the West Bank to dominate, control and shoot the population."
But Mary Davis, from London Metropolitan University, said there were "many, many academics ... who oppose Israeli government policy tooth and nail ... This notion that Israeli academia is the Springbok of Israel is just plain wrong and foolish."
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