Israeli boycott back on agenda

May 18, 2007

The academic boycott of Israel is back on the agenda, with the submission of motions on the subject to the University and College Union congress this month, writes Melanie Newman.

An anti-boycott group has accused pro-boycott academics of trying to hijack the UCU and of politicising the academic environment.

One motion from UCU branches at the universities of Brighton and East London urges the union's executive to circulate the text of a call for a boycott from Palestinian trade unions.

It also asks the union's national executive to organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic and educational trade unionists and to "issue guidance on appropriate forms of action".

The motion was proposed by Haim Bresheeth, an Israeli-born professor of media and cultural studies at the University of East London. He said he had not called outright for a boycott because he felt that the new union needed to debate the issue.

But the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB), run out of Bar-Ilan University, has urged its members to lobby UCU delegates. Ofir Frankel said: "With few exceptions, those leading the boycott call are not the leaders of British academia but, rather, political extremists... seeking to hijack the union and use it as a weapon to propagate their marginal political agenda."

Professor Bresheeth said: "Those who say that asking for a debate is extreme are not academics."

Sue Blackwell, a member of the UCU national executive and a pro-boycott activist, said the IAB's message amounted to "outside interference in the democratic affairs of an independent trade union. Those leading the boycott movement may not be leaders of academia, whatever that means, but they have been democratically elected to trade-union roles".

"Members of the IAB had every right to stand for election - an obvious way of using the democratic process to make their point."

In 2005, the Association of University Teachers' national council voted for a boycott of Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities in Israel. The council overturned the decision after international and local protests. In May 2006, lecturers' union Natfhe (now part of the UCU) passed a motion inviting members to consider boycotting Israeli academics under certain circumstances.

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said before her election that the UCU should not adopt the Natfhe boycott on Israel and that any final decision should be made by a full membership ballot and not by conference alone.

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