Two years on, another country, another storm

April 6, 2007

Two years ago this month, Ilan Pappé found himself at the centre of an international storm over the academic boycott of Israel. His appointment at Exeter University now looks set to put him in the middle of another.

On April 22, 2005, the then Association of University Teachers, carried at its annual conference a motion committing the union's 40,000 members to boycott Israel's Haifa and Bar Illan universities as part of a protest at the state's treatment of Palestinians.

Bar Illan was singled out over its links with a college in the occupied territory of the West Bank. Haifa was accused of victimising its own politics lecturer, Professor Pappé, because he had criticised Israel.

In particular, he had defended a graduate student, Teddy Katz, whose thesis had controversially challenged the history of Israel's foundations by reporting an alleged massacre of unarmed Arab civilians in 1948.

Professor Pappé, the AUT's motion reported, had been told by his employer in 2002 that he faced "trial and possible dismissal" and had continued to face "recriminations" with his job still "threatened" as a result of his criticisms of Israel.

The AUT agreed "to boycott Haifa University until it... ceases its victimisation of academic staff and students who seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel".

Haifa said it was "saddened and not a little outraged" by the AUT's decision. Mishcon de Reya, its lawyers, wrote to the AUT in May 2005 stating that Professor Pappé "has never been subject to disciplinary proceedings in relation to his support of Mr Katz's thesis".

In fact, a complaint against him by a colleague (not the university authorities) had not been taken up by the university.

There had never been any recriminations from the university itself against Professor Pappé, "whether due to his support of Teddy Katz or his calls to boycott Israeli academic institutions", said the lawyers who famously represented Diana, Princess of Wales, in her divorce.

Haifa's threatened libel action against the AUT was headed off, when an emergency council meeting of the AUT, called by members opposed to the boycott decision, succeeded in throwing out the union's boycott policy.

The details of Professor Pappé's case was lost under a general avalanche of criticism of the principle and validity of applying pressure against the state of Israel by, as Haifa argued at the time, "erecting barriers and obstructing the flow of ideas within the international academic community".

But comprehensive defeat of the AUT motions did not kill the issue. Professor Pappé's status as the cause cel bre of the pro-boycott movement was secured and his case and the publicity it generated gave vigour to the pro-boycott campaign.

Lecturers' union Natfhe, at its last annual conference before it merged with the AUT to form the University and College Union last summer, carried a motion in support of a boycott. But the policy fell into abeyance within days, as the merger with AUT wiped out the policies of both previous unions.

Now Professor Pappé's arrival in the UK - just weeks before the UCU is due, at its first annual conference, to settle its position on a boycott once and for all - has set the scene for an explosive debate.

As Ronnie Fraser, founder of the Academic Friends of Israel said: "Britain is the centre for the academic boycott activity and the UCU congress is the frontline."

UCU risks renewed outcry with another pro-Palestine motion

The 120,000-strong University and College Union could soon agree plans to boycott Israeli academics, The Times Higher can reveal, writes Phil Baty.

A model policy motion that would commit the union to supporting a boycott, drafted by the British Committee for Universities of Palestine, has been adopted by two branches of the UCU.

It will be debated at the union's first national conference in early June.

UCU branches at Brighton University and the University of East London have adopted the model motion. The wording of the final motion is not yet clear.

But the Bricup model version says: "Congress notes that Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement.

"Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian civil society for the international community 'to comprehensively and consistently boycott' all Israeli academic institutions'."

The motion adds that "passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic". It calls on the UCU executive to "encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions; and to issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action".

The motion is likely to resurrect the explosive international debate that followed the outcry in 2005 when the former Association of University Teachers, now merged with lecturers' union Natfhe to form the UCU, first agreed a boycott.

That move was overturned at a special emergency meeting of the AUT. Natfhe, the larger of the two merged unions with 70,000 members, supported a boycott at its final conference last year until the merger last June swept away all its previous policies.

A separate motion, agreed by the Birmingham branch of the UCU, argues for "a moratorium on research and cultural collaborations" until Israel abides by UN resolutions.

Another, on academic freedom from Canterbury Christ Church University, would ensure that the union could not boycott any college or university outside the UK without a ballot of all members.

Meanwhile, a controversial definition of anti-Semitism was adopted by the National Union of Students at its annual conference last week.

A motion calling for the European Monitoring Committee's "working definition" of anti-Semitism was passed.

The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism recommended last September that the definition be adopted by the Government.

In its response to the report published this week, the Government stopped short of doing so, noting that the definition "is in fact a work in progress".

Some Jewish groups have objected to the definition, saying that it could be used to prevent legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy.

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