UK vice-chancellors are “opposed to any academic boycott of Israeli universities” (“Universities UK confirms opposition to Israel boycott”, 3 June). Boycotts, they say, are “inimical to academic freedom” and to freedom to collaborate. The University and College Union, meanwhile, is reluctant even to broadcast to its own members its policy in favour of the boycott for fear of a possible legal challenge.
Academic freedom is indeed a core value of the academy. This is precisely why we are so concerned about the situation in Palestine. To be a student or academic in Palestine is to have one’s freedom to study and to research breached every day by roadblocks, starvation of funding, exclusion of foreign academics and delays and prohibitions on equipment imports. Palestinians studying at Israeli universities are discriminated against. These universities are all complicit in securing an illegal occupation.
And yet there are other relevant principles besides academic freedom – those of justice, equality and human rights. There have been regimes in living memory that excluded or persecuted scholars and students because of their ethnicity, with the collusion of university managements. Would UUK also have encouraged institutional collaboration with them? One hopes not.
So which principles are to be defended? The academic freedom to collaborate with institutions, or principles of justice, enshrined in international law?
The boycott movement does not discriminate against either Israeli or Palestinian scholars. It affirms their equality. That is the reason why its boycott is focused on the institutions that are complicit in Israeli policy. It does not inhibit exchange of views, but it does impact on institutional exchanges and collaborations.
How is it that UUK is now so exercised by this supposed threat to academic freedom, when in April it was silent on the case of the University of Southampton cancelling the conference on Israel’s legal status?
Meanwhile, the UCU simply invites members to reflect on the moral and political implications of collaboration with institutions of oppression. The leadership of our union now considers an invitation to reflect to be legally risky.
Are all our British institutions running so scared of pro-Israel “lawfare” that they are unable to stand up for what is right?
Jonathan Rosenhead, London School of Economics
Bob Brecher, University of Brighton
Brian Kelly, Queen’s University Belfast
Marjorie Mayo, Goldsmiths, University of London
Mark McGovern, Edge Hill University