Boycott pulls in Natfhe

May 27, 2005

Lecturers' union Natfhe joined the international row over the academic boycott of Israel this week as it emerged that an emergency motion backing plans to sever ties with two Israeli universities has been submitted for debate at its annual conference this weekend.

The Natfhe London Region motion "welcomes" the move by the Association of University Teachers, at its annual conference last month, to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities in protest at the institutions' alleged complicity with the Israeli Government's policy on Palestinians.

It says: "We call on Natfhe to... adopt the same position in anticipation of the merger of the two unions".

It was not clear as The Times Higher went to press whether the late motion would be accepted for debate. This will be determined at the start of the conference on Saturday.

But its submission prompted a solicitor's warning, on behalf of Natfhe member Ronnie Fraser, a prominent Natfhe Jewish-rights activist.

The letter, from solicitors Mishcon de Reya, argues that debate on the motion would be held on the Jewish Sabbath, which would prevent Orthodox Jews from taking part.

The news came as the AUT faced fresh attacks for deciding to hold this week's special council, where its boycott policy will be debated, behind closed doors despite great public and press interest.

In a brief statement on its website, on which it has refused to expand, the AUT said its executive had agreed to hold the meeting, on May 26, in camera on legal advice. The meeting was due to be held after The Times Higher went to press.

It is understood that the union closed its doors following a threat from solicitors acting on behalf of Haifa University. Haifa has threatened to sue the AUT for libel over claims made in the original motion calling for a boycott. There are concerns that new motions, as well as speakers in the debate, could be targeted for legal action.

Jon Pike, the Open University lecturer who led calls for the special meeting, said: "In the interest of openness and transparency, I think it is a shame that the press and outside speakers are being excluded from the meeting."

Sue Blackwell, the Birmingham University academic who proposed the original boycott motions, was also critical.

But she was more concerned by reports that the AUT's national executive committee had decided to recommend that delegates overturn the boycotts - even though they are currently official union policy, as agreed at the original annual council.

The full list of motions - passed to The Times Higher - shows that the special meeting was due to debate 32 new motions from 18 local AUT branches, 20 of which explicitly call on the AUT to "rescind" or "repeal" the decision.

Ms Blackwell said it was a long-established practice for the executive to back motions that conform to the union's existing policy. But, she added, "our craven executive did the exact opposite".

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