AUT poised to hold review of boycott

May 6, 2005

The Association of University Teachers this week looked set to announce a special council to reconsider its decision to boycott two Israeli universities after a backlash against the controversial policy.

As The Times Higher went to press, Jon Pike, an Open University academic who is leading a campaign against the boycott, confirmed that he had collected the signatures of "more than 25" AUT council members.

Under the AUT's constitution, 25 signatures are required to force a fresh council meeting.

While the AUT was busy verifying the members' names - to ensure all were elected by their local branches to represent them at the annual policy-making council - Mr Pike said that he expected the boycott decision would be overturned.

"We are confident - we are sure - that there will be a special council meeting later this month," he said.

"The whole decision (to boycott) looks illegitimate and unsound. There must be a special council in order to secure a democratic outcome."

The AUT's annual council last month voted narrowly to boycott Haifa University, claiming that it failed to uphold the academic freedom of its staff to criticise Israel.

The AUT also voted to boycott Bar-Ilan University because it supervised degree programmes for the College of Judea and Samaria in the occupied West Bank settlement of Ariel.

However, the college was granted full university status by the Israeli Government this week, and it was already due to formally sever its relationship with Bar-Ilan this September.

Critics of the boycott argued that there was no time for a proper debate at the annual council meeting. They also claimed that a number of Jewish AUT members were unable to be present because the meeting was held on the eve of Passover.

Even so, the voting was so close that a count was required, splitting the AUT delegates by four votes in one case.

It is understood that many AUT council delegates who supported the boycott are now being lobbied by grass-roots branch members to reverse their positions.

In the meantime, a number of anti-boycott groups have been established. Mr Pike and other academics and writers have founded Engage, an organisation set up specifically to oppose the AUT boycott by those who "oppose Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza" and who support the foundation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Members of Engage include professors at Haifa and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as prominent British scholars including Tudor Parfitt, School of Oriental and African Studies professor of modern Jewish studies.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has formed the Campaign Group for Academic Freedom, whose mandate is "to co-ordinate activity within and beyond the Jewish community in order to overturn the AUT decision".

Hillary Rose, who was one of the campaigners for an academic boycott of Israel two years ago, said: "We welcome any further chance to debate the issues.

"The British academic community does not know, in adequate detail, the appalling conditions of their Palestinian colleagues and how academic freedom is denied," she said.

"I'm convinced that the boycott will not be overturned," Professor Rose said.

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