Boycott backlash begins

June 8, 2007

Overseas condemnation of Britain and spectre of sanctions looms. Nathan Jeffay and Melanie Newman report

UK academics faced an unprecedented backlash this week as a threatened boycott of Israeli universities raised the spectre of international sanctions against British goods and research.

The Israeli Government, an American research foundation and lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic are lined up to sink any boycott of Israeli academe stemming from a motion passed at the inaugural congress of the University and College Union.

But while the global backlash gained momentum, UCU officials were unable to clarify exactly what implications, if any, the 158 to 99 vote in favour of a boycott motion at last week's congress would have for UK universities and academics. It raises the possibility that, having sparked a major international outcry, a boycott may fail to materialise.

On Monday, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, began debating a draft law that could see British imports to Israel labelled, "This country is involved in an anti-Israeli boycott". This followed a letter to British academe from Elizabeth Goldhirsh of the US-based Goldhirsh Foundation, which funds research into brain cancer, saying it had been considering opening its grant applications to UK researchers but would now be no longer be able to do so.

In the UK, Anthony Julius, a lawyer at London-based Mishcon de Reya who acted for the late Diana, Princess of Wales in her divorce from Prince Charles, said he had teamed up with top American lawyer Alan Dershowitz to fight the proposed boycott.

Speaking exclusively to The Times Higher , Mr Julius, who is also a visiting professor at Birkbeck, University of London, said: "The vote has stimulated a great sense of solidarity among distinct constituencies. The overwhelming majority of Jews find the motion repellent, academics recoil from the double standards in the resolution and the threat to academic freedom, and people who are neither Jews nor academics see this activity for what it is: generated by malice and hatred for Israel."

Professor Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University, has promised to visit financial and legal ruin on any UK academic supporting a boycott.

Speaking in this week's Times Higher , Professor Dershowitz likened the boycott to the treatment of Jewish students and faculty in Nazi Germany. He promised "extraordinarily punitive" sanctions against those involved in boycotting.

Tom Hickey, chair of Brighton University's UCU branch and proposer of the boycott motion, said that the vote would enhance the international reputation of British academics.

"We have shown that we are not separating ourselves in an ivory tower but using our scholarly judgment to improve the world," he told The Times Higher .

Ian McDonald, a senior lecturer from Brighton University who supported the UCU motion, said: "We have to challenge the notion that to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Semitic."


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