UK group proposes boycott of Israeli academia
Jonny Paul, Jerusalem Post, Mar 29, 2008 14:56 | Updated Mar 30, 2008 5:25
Source: Jerusalem Post
The National Executive Committee of the University College Union, the union at the focus of the last year's aborted call for a boycott of Israeli academia, has voted to submit a motion to its annual conference to revive the proposal.
Last week, a motion to reconsider academic links to Israeli institutions was proposed by Brighton University lecturer and Socialist Worker Party activist Tom Hickey. He introduced a similar motion that passed at the UCU annual conference last May.
In September, University College Union lawyers said a boycott "would be unlawful and cannot be implemented," and the proposal was subsequently withdrawn.
Last week's National Executive Committee motion was seconded by Linda Newman, the new president of the UCU, who ran for the post on an anti-boycott platform.
"Engage," a group of left-wing trade unionists and academics active in the anti-boycott campaign, said Newman was elected in good faith in a ballot of the union's entire membership as a candidate who would oppose proposals to exclude Israelis from the academic community.
During the union leadership campaign last year, Newman told Engage that she opposed the call for a boycott of Israeli universities.
"I felt that the boycott would be ineffective and I did not believe that it was supported by a majority of members... I will seek to promote and gain support from UCU for increased links between Israeli and Palestine academics. I will also seek to ensure that any proposal for an academic boycott is subject to a vote of all members, if such a proposal is passed at a future UCU congress. I trust this answers your questions. I hope I can rely on your support," Newman said.
Engage said Newman had now reneged on her promises and should resign immediately.
Ronnie Fraser, director of Academic Friends of Israel, said Newman's change of stance was a "coup for the boycotters" and came two months after her visit to the West Bank as part of an official UCU delegation organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
"She is also promoting a UCU speaking tour by Palestinian academics from the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, which supports an academic boycott of Israel," Fraser added.
According to Engage, last week's motion calls on University College Union members to reconsider academic links to Israeli institutions in light of "apparent complicity of the Israeli academy in Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians" and for a broad discussion on "the appropriateness of continued education links with Israeli academic institutions."
The UCU would not comment on the National Executive Committee motion, saying it was not a public document and that the union did not comment on leaked documents.
"NEC motions are internal, not public, documents and should not be in the public domain," UCU press spokesman Dan Ashley told The Jerusalem Post.
Stop the Boycott, a campaign group launched last year to oppose all union boycott initiatives, has expressed concerned that the UCU has not published in full the advice of its own lawyers that it heeded when it stopped promoting a boycott of Israeli academics last year.
"This is farcical; have the UCU not learnt anything?" asked Lorna Fitzsimons, co-chair of Stop the Boycott. "Their own legal advice said that this was illegal and discriminatory, so much so that they kicked the other motion out."
David Hirsh, lecturer at the University of London's Goldsmiths College and editor of the Engage Web site, also called for the legal advice to be made public in full.
"It is now time to publish the legal advice that the union has been given so that we can all judge what it means for ourselves," he said.
The union was also told that while it could debate the pros and cons of Israeli policies, it could not spend members' resources on seeking to test opinion on something that is in itself "unlawful and cannot be implemented."
Fraser said he expects the list of motions at this year's UCU Congress to include proposals to support Hamas and to call for an academic or cultural boycott of Israel, or even divestment.
"I wouldn't bet on there being motions on the situation in Darfur or Tibet, but it is a certainty there will be ones criticizing Israel," he said.
Stop the Boycott said the UCU's National Executive Committee was "acting recklessly" and promoting discrimination by taking a pro-boycott position similar to that which was found to be illegal. Stop the Boycott has promised to support union members who challenged boycott motion in the courts.
"It is farcical that a small minority has hijacked the union in this way," the group said in a statement. "Stop the Boycott will support and empower to any union members who choose this course of action through seeking our own legal opinion."
"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," said Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. "Stop the Boycott will once again coordinate the community's efforts with those partners inside the UCU to overturn these flawed proposals," Grunwald said.
Prof. David Newman of Ben-Gurion University, who represents Israel's universities in the UK, told the Post:
"In my meetings with university vice chancellors and principals throughout the UK, they have come out strongly against any form of boycott. We are currently developing new bilateral research and scientific exchange programs between the two countries and these will not be affected by a renewed motion."
Newman was also critical of lack of a robust response from the Israeli government.
"Apart from their condemnations, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is also not active in the boycott campaign. The proactive stance of the new ambassador to the UK [Ron Prosor] and his insistence on lecturing at university campuses across the country has provided some glimmer of light," he said.
"While resources are made available for the visit of Palestinian academics to UK campuses, and the holding of pro-boycott conferences and discussions on Israel's legitimacy, the visits of Israeli professors are minimal. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the universities see this as high on their priority list and [they] have, in effect, vacated the field to the pro-boycott activists," Newman said.
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