Since the University and College Union congress voted to organise a debate on a boycott of Israeli institutions, there have been calls to ballot the membership.
Speaking as a supporter of a boycott, I want UCU branches to have the opportunity to hear and debate arguments from Palestinian academic trade unionists. On this basis, members will make their own judgments about whether or how to act upon calls for a boycott. In the short term, a ballot would prematurely foreclose wider involvement of the UCU membership in such a debate. Perhaps this is why it is being proposed.
When both Archbishop Tutu and African National Congress minister Ronnie Kasrils say that the suffering of the Palestinians is greater than that of black Africans under apartheid, our Palestinian colleagues have the moral right to ask for our solidarity. It is the failure of Western governments to tackle this appalling situation that has led to many in civil society to ask how we can create international pressure on this pariah state.
An academic boycott endorsed by a British higher education trade union is not new. In 1980, the Association of University Teachers passed a resolution calling for a boycott of apartheid South Africa. I don't remember anyone arguing that we should ask white South African academe whether they would like to be boycotted. Our solidarity was with the oppressed. So what is so special about Israel?
Yes, then too there was an intense debate over how to reconcile the academic freedom of the privileged with the human rights of the oppressed. I am proud that my union took the stance it did. Incidentally, I don't recall there being a national ballot, although a resolution was only passed two decades after the ANC call. Rushing through a ballot on the grounds that it gets a quick, if underinformed, decision seems less than democratic.