Activists renounce union for comment on Israel

January 19, 2007

The University and College Union is accused of being "evasive, disingenuous and complacent" over its approach to a proposed academic boycott of Israel, in a letter to The Times Higher signed by 70 UCU activists.

Before they merged last year to form the UCU, the Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe had both been subject to intensive worldwide criticism over previous policies that supported a boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions in protest at the state's treatment of Palestinians.

The merged union is likely to decide its official policy on the issue at its first annual conference in spring. But the UCU leadership detailed its position on the general issues in a response to the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism, which raised concerns last year that such boycotts were not only an "assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange" but were also "anti-Jewish in practice".

The UCU response highlights the union's "unremitting opposition to anti-Semitism" and says: "This has been a guiding principle for us in our industrial, equality, educational and international policy-making." But it adds: "Our experience shows that... defenders of the Israeli Government's actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate."

Now, in a new twist, 70 academics have signed a letter to The Times Higher criticising the union's position as set out in its response document. They claim that the UCU paper fails to address the point that boycotts unintentionally discriminate against Jews, "pleading innocent to a different charge... that its members are not motivated by a hatred of Jews".

They also say that the UCU's declaration that criticism of Israel does not equate to anti-Semitism is "a standard formulation by which those who support a boycott of Israel, and only Israel, avoid confronting the issue of anti-Semitism".

Paul Mackney, joint UCU general secretary, said that he personally opposed a boycott and his union had "done more on anti-Semitism than any other union".

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