UCU action threatens to cause a lasting rift

June 8, 2007

The UCU vote for a possible boycott of Israel divides academe. Melanie Newman and Nathan Jeffay report.

Concerns are growing at home and abroad that supporters of a boycott have let the genie out of the bottle. It is feared that their actions may inflict lasting damage on the UK's reputation for academic freedom and fair play while failing to achieve the primary objective, namely securing a boycott against Israeli academe.

Academics and union members are also questioning the role of the University and College Union. Despite a personal condemnation of any move to a boycott by Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, some claim that the union has been undermined by groups keen to hijack the organisation to further their political aims.

Some are calling for the union to become more like a professional association and focus on representing members' interests rather than political campaigns.

The reaction from around the world has shaken many ordinary academics, who fear that they may be affected personally simply by being part of a British academic community whose reputation has been tarnished.

The early response from Israel was restrained, but the issue has now been raised in the country's parliament, the Knesset. A draft Bill calling for British goods to be labelled as coming from a country that boycotts Israel has been submitted by Otniel Schneller, a member of the centrist Kadima Party. It is understood to have the support of several other parliamentarians from across the political spectrum.

Jonathan Rynhold, a British-born academic who gained his doctorate from and taught at the London School of Economics, gave evidence at an emergency sitting of the Knesset's Education and Science Committee - the equivalent of a UK select committee - earlier this week.

He advised the committee against seeking a government-led response because it might be counterproductive. Unions should speak to unions, and academics to academics on the issue, he told the committee.

The reaction from the US has been more severe.

Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University, is leading the charge and puts his case powerfully (see opposite).

Professor Dershowitz has teamed up with Anthony Julius, a lawyer at Mishcon de Reya in London, with the aim of providing a solid legal challenge to any academic or institution engaged in a boycott of Israel.

Mr Julius, a visiting professor at Birkbeck, University of London, said:

"The vote does not call for a boycott outright, but it is not neutral either - it's weighted in favour of boycott activities but falls short of endorsing a boycott.

"A full boycott would put academics whose jobs require contact with Israeli academics in a trap - in order to pursue their research they need contact, but that would put them in breach of union policy and expose them to expulsion."

Members who voted for the boycott motion remained unrepentant this week.

Sue Blackwell, a member of the UCU executive who voted in support of the motion, said: "We've put Palestine back on the agenda. We've achieved a debate on the issue. It's very sad that people are reacting like this to a call for discussion."

But Fernando Pereira, professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, said the UCU vote had undermined "British academia's long-standing reputation for openness and fairness".

Dennis Hayes, outgoing president of the UCU and an opponent of the boycott motion, said the issue was bound up with academic freedom, which was of paramount importance to academe.

He said there were inconsistencies in the union's approach to free speech.

While its congress was moving to block dialogue with Israel and congratulating itself on preventing a representative of the British National Party from visiting Bath University earlier this year, it was supporting Muslim extremists' right to voice their opinions on campus. "We appear to be impaling ourselves on a contradiction," he said.

John Fitzpatrick, president of Kent University's UCU branch, agreed that unless UCU members were prepared to defend the rights of the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir alike, they would show no understanding of the real meaning of freedom of speech. But he said many people were "scared to speak out" for fear of opprobrium.

The Israeli boycott vote has also led some academics to question whether the UCU should be involved in divisive political issues at all.

David-Hillel Ruben, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, said the vote was "only the latest egregious example" of political posturing by the UCU.

Vox pop: what the delegates thought of the boycott vote

Speaking in a personal capacity, Adel Nasser , an IT manager in computing services at Manchester University, said the vote was a call for a debate.

'It will send a message to Israeli academics that they should be proactive in that debate,' he said.

Jimmy Donaghey , a lecturer in management at Queen's University Belfast, said: 'At face value, it sends out a positive message about our readiness to debate contentious issues. But I'm afraid the message many people will take away is that British academics are taking a black-and-white approach to a very complex issue.'

Mary Davis , a professor of labour history at London Metropolitan University, said: 'Whatever the motion actually said, the media has already interpreted it as a boycott call. There will be a backlash against British academia - something that, as a new union, we could really do without.'

Simon Renton , a history lecturer at University College London and member of the UCU National Executive Committee, said: 'I think a lot of people voted for the motion on the grounds that it would open up discussion, but whether it's really just about that is unclear. Is it intended to soften people up before a vote on a full boycott? A boycott is a denial of people's opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate.'

John Constantinou , vice-president of Leicester University's UCU branch, believes 'yes' voters were expressing concerns for the Palestinians. But he said: 'Two wrongs don't make a right. There has to be a better way to draw attention to the situation.'

Mike Cushman , an information systems research fellow at the London School of Economics, said: 'I have a "right of return" to Israel although I have never been there and do not call it my country.' Many Palestinians had no such right, he added.

Phil Marfleet , who teaches Third World studies at the University of East London, described himself as a convert to the idea of a boycott. On a visit to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he said he found a student body consisting mainly of Israeli settlers from the occupied territories and a university planning to extend its campus to Palestinian property. 'Israeli academic freedom is at the cost of Palestinian freedom,' he said.

Terry Hoad , a tutor in English language at Oxford University, said a union-wide debate should be held as quickly as possible. 'We need to make it clear that the motion doesn't necessarily represent the views of the UCU membership. I'm sure the membership at large will have a different view.'

ANAT MATAR: WHY I BACK A BOYCOTT

"My support of a boycott should be read as a desperate call for help," says Anat Matar, a philosophy lecturer at Tel Aviv University.

As an Israeli academic who supports the boycott of her own country's academic institutions, she admits that her position is unpopular.

"Most of my colleagues disagree with me: some because they don't share my political views, others because they think that supporting the boycott is pragmatically mistaken."

But she regards the boycott as an important "symbolic act" that, together with similar actions affecting other areas of Israeli life, could effect a change in the country's policies.

"Israel is regarded by its Western allies as an open, liberal democracy. It is not," she said. "For more than two thirds of its existence, Israel has been occupying the Palestinian territories and, in recent years, the severity of this occupying regime has been greatly intensified."

Instead of being bad for Israel, she believes boycotts may encourage Israel to change its current direction which, she says, will see it "bring a disaster upon itself and its neighbours".

She adds: "An objection to the academic boycott we often hear is that Israeli academics are liberal and oppose the occupation, hence it would be unjust to boycott them. This is simply not true."

NJ

MAJID AL-HAJ: WHY I OPPOSE A BOYCOTT

There are many residents of the Arab city of Shfar'am, near Haifa, who are enthusiasts of the boycott. But Majid Al-Haj, a professor of sociology and a harsh critic of Israel's policies towards his fellow Palestinians, thinks it will do more harm than good.

"What is needed in this region are bridges between people, not the opposite," says Professor Al-Haj, who is dean of research at Haifa University. "We need co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian academics, and between both groups and academics elsewhere."

His research, and his role as head of Haifa's Centre for Multiculturalism and Educational Research, focuses heavily on the social and political identity of Palestinians and the Palestinian refugee problem. But he insists: "The boycott will do nothing for the peace process and nothing for the cause of the Palestinians."

Professor Al-Haj believes that academics, with their intellectual credentials, international ties and propensity to criticise the occupation, "pave the way" for the causes of peace and humanitarian values.

"I believe that just as war should not be left to the generals, peace should not be left to the politicians."

For Israeli society to move forward, it must have a greater, not a lesser, exchange of ideas with the outside, he says. "Only if we go in this positive direction can we make peace real."

NJ

MOTION NUMBER 30: WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?

Motion Number 30, which members approved by a vote of 158 to 99, instructed the University and College Union to circulate the full text of a Palestinian boycott call to all branches for discussion and to issue guidance on "appropriate forms of action".

The UCU was also ordered to support branches in the forming of links with Palestinian universities while encouraging members to "consider the moral implications" of links with Israeli universities.

Individual branches do not have the power to implement a boycott, but individual members are free to do what they wish.

The UCU's national executive will meet this Friday to discuss further the implications of the motion.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel says that the "vast majority" of Israeli academics have contributed to maintaining, defending or justifying "Israel's colonial oppression of the Palestinian people, which is based on Zionist ideology", or have been complicit with it through silence.

MN

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments