Palestinians accuse UCU

October 5, 2007

Palestinian academic leaders have launched a bitter attack on the UK's University and College Union, accusing it of suppressing debate and undermining academic freedom.

The Federation of Unions of Palestinian University Professors and Employees said this week that it was "dismayed" by news that the UCU had cancelled a tour of UK university union branches to discuss whether the union should impose a national academic boycott of Israeli universities in protest against the state's treatment of Palestinians.

UCU members passed a motion at the union's annual congress in May calling for the national executive to circulate, for debate, a Palestinian call to boycott Israel and to organise a UK tour by Palestinian trade unionists to discuss a potential boycott.

After seeking legal advice, the UCU this week said that neither action could go ahead. In a statement, the UCU said: "The legal advice makes it clear that making a call to boycott Israeli institutions would run a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation. The call to boycott is also considered to be outside the aims and objectives of the UCU."

While the union was free to debate the pros and cons of Israeli policies, it could not spend members' cash testing opinion on an unlawful act, it added. "The proposed regional tour cannot go ahead under current arrangements and is therefore suspended."

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: "I hope this decision will allow all to move forward and focus on what is our primary objective - the representation of our members."

In response, Amjad Barham, president of the Palestinian federation, said: "We believe our British colleagues have been deprived of an opportunity to better inform themselves about an issue that is of concern to conscientious academics and intellectuals the world over.

"Moreover, we are disappointed to see that the leadership of a prominent organisation of academics such as yours has not defended the right of its members to engage in debate on this matter. Open debate and discussion are the foundations of academic freedom, and thus we cannot understand why the door to open consideration of controversial ideas has been so abruptly closed."

He said the group would continue to seek to make its case heard, adding that "during the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa, British academics were at the forefront of the academic and other boycotts of the racist state".

Haim Bresheeth, professor of media studies at the University of East London, who proposed the pro-boycott UCU motion, said: "We are demanding that the UCU show us the exact question that was asked of the lawyer and the answer. If you ask enough lawyers, you get the answer you want."

Jimmy Donaghey, a lecturer at Queen's University Belfast's School of Management who has set up an online petition calling for a national ballot on the issue, was pleased with the decision. "As I am anti-boycott, I welcome [the news] that the substantive issue probably will not come to fruition," he said.

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