Boycott opponents gain momentum

June 15, 2007

Olga Wojtas and Jon Marcus (inset) report on global backlash to UCU motion as union prepares to consult wider membership.

Opposition to the threatened boycott of Israeli universities gained momentum this week with a debate in the House of Lords, a Government delegation to Israel and a flurry of anti-boycott initiatives.

Baroness Deech, the independent adjudicator for higher education, led a Lords debate in which she condemned the UCU vote for a boycott as "McCarthyite anti-intellectualism".

She said the proposed boycott was contrary to the 70-year-old principle of the "universality of science", published by the International Council of Scientific Unions and originally designed to prevent German scientists being excluded from international conferences.

"Boycotting scientists and others by reason of their country of residence should not be permitted, because the advance of knowledge is potentially beneficial to all mankind," she said.

"It is not morally justifiable either to hold all Israeli academics collectively responsible for the actions of their government - and they are the ones most likely to be in opposition - or to use them as hostages to further the political aims of others."

The debate followed a trip to Israel over the weekend by the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell, who said that a boycott would "make the job of the progressives much more difficult" and "entrench the position of people who take a hardline position".

Mr Rammell was joined by Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK, who said that while academics were free to criticise the policies of any government, a boycott was not "defensible" under the obligations of academic freedom.

The British Academy has also this week restated its 20-year opposition to any academic boycott, warning that boycotts are inimical to research.

It quotes the statement of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, to which it belongs: "Moratoria on scientific exchanges based on nationality, race, sex, language, religion, opinion and similar factors thwart the network's goal. They would deny our colleagues their rights to freedom of opinion and expression; interfere with their ability to exercise their bona fide academic freedoms; inhibit the free circulation of scientists and scientific ideas; and impose unjust punishment."

Reinhold Behringer, professor in creative technology at Leeds Metropolitan University, has used the "weekly ethical reflection" slot on the university website to offer to establish links with Israeli and Palestinian academics and institutions "in the belief that collaboration between the two parties can contribute more towards mutual understanding and lasting peace than any ill-conceived boycott".

A website, www.stoptheboycott.org , has been launched. It condemns the UCU congress vote in favour of a boycott motion as "the actions of a small and unrepresentative minority that flies in the face of academic freedom". And it calls on UCU general secretary Sally Hunt to "honour her pledge" to ballot the union's 120,000 members over the proposal.

The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, an independent organisation that aims to boost support for Israel in the UK, is urging staff and students opposed to the boycott to register their names. It says it is engaging with a number of high-profile academics "who are not only anti-boycott but are also pro-Israel."

But Dame Nancy Rothwell, former Times Higher columnist and vice-president for research at Manchester University, said the issue of Israel was a red herring. She has resigned her long-standing union membership in protest at the UCU vote. "The danger is that some people think if they're against the boycott, they're in favour of Israeli actions, and it's not that at all," she said.

"It's the principle that's so important. It's nothing to do with Israel: I would do exactly the same if it was Palestine. It is censorship on the basis of political views and that is fundamentally wrong - it's madness, actually."

Tom Hickey, chair of Brighton UCU, who proposed the boycott motion, said it was "a rather bizarre turn of events" that those who criticised the boycott on the grounds of academic freedom were seemingly trying to prevent the possibility of even discussing the proposal. Following the union's national executive committee meeting last Friday (June 8), the UCU has confirmed it is now considering the necessary steps that are needed for members to be able to debate the arguments for and against the boycott.

A spokesperson said that after individual branches had debated the issue, "the union's democratic structures will be used to ensure any decision on boycott is one that best represents the views of the majority of members."

He added: "It is important that all UCU members have the opportunity to have their say and the local debates are a good place for that to happen."

But with the summer break in sight, it seems unlikely there will be consultations before next term.

Ms Hunt said: "Personally, I believe that any decision to boycott another country's academic institutions should only be taken if the majority of UCU members support it."

US FUND LAUNCHED TO SUPPORT ISRAELI ACADEME

An international group of Jewish foundations has launched a fund to pay for exchange programmes between universities worldwide and Israeli universities that might be the targets of a boycott by British academics.

Universities in the UK whose academics vote for and take part in any boycott would not be eligible for any of the money.

The Jewish Funders Network, which represents Jewish philanthropists and foundations, started the fund quietly the day after members of the University and College Union voted for a motion supporting a boycott of Israeli universities. The network quickly raised $200,000 (£100,000) to cover its start-up costs.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Network, said that Jewish foundations and funders control some $30 billion (£15 billion) in the United States alone.

"The fund was started really as a reaction by members of ours," Mr Charendoff said. "We represent family foundations and independent funders and philanthropists who were outraged at the decision in the UK and wanted to take action.

"Some of our members are considering action that would impact directly on universities and academics in the UK but collectively they were urging us to do something positive to help Israeli academics that might be impacted by the decision."

Mr Charendoff declined to reveal what other actions those foundations might be contemplating and said his organisation's policy was not to identify its members.

"Jewish organisations are just incensed by what's going on. The question is really what to do about it," Mr Charendoff said.

"Our funders are people who are used to using money to solve problems.

There's no question that there are members of ours who as individuals have every intention of reconsidering any funding that would go to British acade-mics and institutions that support the boycott."

Mr Charendoff said the money his organisation is raising would be used to provide incentive grants to universities outside Israel to create new academic exchanges with Israeli universities and colleges.

"If as a result of this terribly irresponsible decision Israeli academics and institutions have fewer opportunities to interact with their colleagues outside of Israel then our funders want to try to remedy that by creating more opportunities for Israeli academics outside of Israel," he said.

"They also want to create opportunities for academics outside of Israel to experience Israel for themselves."

British universities with staff supporting the boycott would be excluded, Mr Charendoff said. But he said that funders would be looking for ways to engage British institutions that "stood up against this boycott".

At least one foundation that has contributed to the new fund is the Goldhirsh Foundation, one of whose directors, Elizabeth Goldhirsh, last week wrote a letter of protest about the boycott vote. Ms Goldhirsh also said that she had considered extending eligibility for grants from her foundation to British academics, but had changed her mind.

"I had been considering extending the grants to British scientists. After this call was made I decided I would no longer be able to do so," Ms Goldhirsh said.

"I was very sad to have to write that letter. But I feel that there has to be a message sent that if Israel is going to be singled out and demonised above all other countries, there will be a consequence."

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League has taken out full-page advertisements in The New York Times, the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune saying the British boycott calls were anti-Semitic.

One of the ads reads: "400,000 murdered in Darfur. And British academics are boycotting Israel?"

Another reads: "700 human rights activists detained and tortured last year in Zimbabwe. And British academics are boycotting Israel?"

The adverts conclude: "When British unions single out Israel for boycott, that's not activism. That's anti-Semitism."

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