Backlash may put boycott in jeopardy

April 29, 2005

The Association of University Teachers could be forced to abandon its boycott of two Israeli universities before it even gets off the ground, The Times Higher has learnt.

A move by anti-boycott campaigners to invoke obscure union rules to call a special council that could reverse the boycott decision within a month comes amid a growing international backlash against the boycott. Prominent international Jewish scholars have even called for a tit-for-tat boycott of UKacademics in response to the AUT's move.

At the AUT's annual council meeting in Eastbourne last week, delegates agreed by just four votes that the 40,000-strong academic union would boycott Haifa and Bar Ilan universities in Israel.

The boycott motions accused Bar Ilan of being "directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories" because it supervises degree programmes at a college based in the settlement of Ariel, near Nablus.

Haifa was accused in a separate motion of failing to uphold the academic freedom of staff and students who "seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel".

Delegates opposed to the boycott have complained that the motions' claims were not correct and that no time was allowed for debate. The Commission for Racial Equality has also received a complaint that the debate was held on the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover, which meant that Jews could not attend.

A number of academics have since resigned their AUT membership in protest, among them William Rubinstein of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

However, the Academic Friends of Israel group has urged academics not to resign but to campaign for a special council.

AUT rules allow for a special council meeting to be convened if 25 council members - members elected by their local branches to represent them at annual council - out of a total of about 300, make a formal request. Once the signatures are received, the meeting will be held within 35 days.

John Pike, a philosopher at the Open University, is organising the call for a special meeting. He said this week that just hours after making the proposal, he was "very close" to having collected the 25 signatures and had gained the backing of a past AUT president. "Some 94 council members voted against the boycott, compared with 98 in favour, so we will get there," he said. "It will happen - and with a proper debate, it will be overturned."

Cambridge University's AUT branch is believed to support a re-convened meeting. Nick Savage, its honorary secretary, voted in favour of the boycott but has resigned his post after being inundated by protests. He said: "I did not feel that I ensured that there was adequate consultation of AUT members at Cambridge in advance of the debate."

Hugh Mason, head of the AUT's international committee, who opposes the boycott, said: "If 25 members are sufficiently annoyed about what happened to reopen the debate, it is their right."

It also emerged this week that the AUT's boycott could backfire badly on British academics - whether they support the boycott or not.

Gadi Taub, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a critic of the Israeli regime, wrote in The Jerusalem Post that Jewish academics should "not go to those universities where the boycott is in force and where we Jews are not welcome".

Two Israeli professors at King's College London - Jonathan Ginzburg and Shalom Lappin - have resigned their AUT posts and called on universities to de-recognise the union.

Even a Palestinian university has reportedly come out against the boycott. According to The Jerusalem Post , a "university source" at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem (whose president Sari Nusseibeh was once accused by the Israelis of involvement in the first intifada) said: "We are informed by the principle that we should seek to win Israelis over to our side, not to win against them. Therefore... we believe it is in our interest to build bridges, not walls; to reach out to the Israeli academic institutions, not to impose another restriction or dialogue block on ourselves."

Meanwhile AUT members have still not been offered any guidance on how to carry out the boycott without breaching employment law or their universities' rules on discrimination and equal opportunities.

In her only statement on the matter, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the AUT, has said: "Until this guidance is issued, it is stressed that members should be advised to not take any action in relation to a boycott that would place them in breach of their contract of employment."

Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said: "Early indications are that (the boycott) would appear to run contrary to contractual law, race and religious discrimination law, and academic freedom obligations that are built into the contracts of staff in pre-1992 universities."

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