Real victims of UCU's Middle East incursion

June 8, 2007

A boycott of Israel can only backfire on Britain, says John Sutherland

Cruising to the roof of a Los Angeles parking structure the other week - looking, vainly, for a "spot" - I saw three cars with "Boycott France!" bumper stickers.

Unlikely, I think, whatever turn events in the Middle East take in the next few months, that "Boycott Israel!" will decorate the fenders of America. Least of all in campus parking lots. Fact is, a car with such a sticker would need the kind of armour they're (belatedly) patching on Humvees in Iraq.

As Steven Weinberg's personal counter-boycott (the first of many, apparently) indicates ( The Times Higher , May 25), the University and College Union, with its pre-emptive strike against Israel's academies and (obscurely) against Israeli "culture", may also be picking a fight with that country's staunchest ally. An ally whose temper is inflamed by the shallow reporting of the event by US newspapers. "Another example of Europe's headlong descent into/return to unprincipled anti-Semitism" is the theme of conversations I've had with American colleagues. They tend to be wholly unpersuadable on the point.

The UCU would clearly like to see itself as the conscience of Britain; as universities consider themselves the mind of Britain. It's a noble aspiration. But many members (and that huge freeloading majority, who have happily profited over the years from the union's pay settlements), see the UCU as an institution whose brief should not extend beyond wage bargaining, pension protection and working conditions. Academic unions have not, alas, had success in those areas over the past 40 years. Workloads have doubled, tenure has been abolished and salaries dropped to a level at which, as A.

D. Halsey puts it, a former profession has been proletarianised. With those trophies on its mantelpiece, the UCU now wants to set the world straight.

Steven Rose (secretary of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine) will do what Kofi Annan could not.

If there is one clearly good thing to emerge from the (overwhelmingly bad) press the boycott motion provokes, it has been to familiarise the general public with what the baffling initials "UCU" mean. Even some academics struggle. Is it a university? Is it a surgical procedure? No, it's "super-union".

Despite the fact that the Israeli Cabinet is reportedly "concerned" - with a shrewd awareness that political pebbles can start landslides - the UCU motion is historically irrelevant; even should it survive a plenary endorsement by the full membership: which an embarrassed Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, thinks (and evidently hopes) it won't.

Similarly irrelevant are the historical parallels with the successful South African sporting boycotts of the 1960s and 1970s that are routinely trotted out. South Africa was a pariah with no powerful friends - with the exception, ironically, of Israel. Israel today has a staunch friend who can do more damage than the UCU can ever inflict. Already American academics are lining up to have their names added to the anti-boycott. Who knows, they may even bundle Sir Harry Kroto back from Florida, Christopher Ricks from Boston and Niall Ferguson from Harvard.

The 1960s South African campaign was solidly supported by the student body of the day. And, on headline-making occasions, the assault was led by academic youth. I was, for example, one of those who protested the Scotland-Springbok rugby match at Murrayfield in 1969. But it was students, not professors, who jinked round the police to run on to the pitch. I rather cowered. The South African team won. South Africa (as it then was) lost. Heavily.

Students have been alienated from the UCU by its other boycotting threats: notably that affecting final exams. And apart from doctrinaire and marginal lobbying groups, today's students en masse aren't as worried about international affairs as were their non-fee-paying predecessors.

Everyone in the academic world has their own view on the Middle East and where the complex balance of rights and wrongs lies. As someone who has had a slight but highly instructive engagement with Israeli universities and a longer engagement with Israeli academics in the US, the boycott seems to me utterly wrong. And worse than wrong, useless. And worse than useless, potentially damaging to the body that would impose it.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus at University College London.

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