The University and College Union has endorsed a call for academics to “consider the moral and political implications” of their links with Israel in the light of Israeli academics’ “complicity” in the human rights abuses of Palestinians.
At the UCU’s annual conference this week, delegates voted in favour of a controversial motion from the University of Brighton branch.
The motion was seconded by Linda Newman, the union’s president, who insisted that it did not represent a formal call on UCU members to boycott Israeli academics and institutions. “I would not support it if it was,” she said.
Previous motions that called more explicitly for boycott have been overturned in the past or declared illegal by lawyers.
But opponents of the latest conference motion described it as tantamount to a boycott call.
The motion “notes the continuation of illegal settlement, killing of civilians and the impossibility of civil life” and the “humanitarian catastrophe imposed on Gaza by Israel”. It also notes the “apparent complicity of most of the Israeli academy”.
It resolves to ask UCU members to “consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions”.
Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, said: “Because of the constant misreporting of the motions considered by UCU’s congress, I feel that I have to state that we have passed a motion to provide solidarity with the Palestinians, not to boycott Israel or any other country’s academic institutions. I made clear to delegates that the union will defend their right to debate this and other issues. Implementation of the motion will now fall to the national executive committee.”
In her keynote speech, she said: “Freedom of thought and the freedom to learn are rights that are at the heart of democratic civil society. Our international obligation is to provide meaningful solidarity wherever we can, whether to teachers in Colombia in fear of their lives; lecturers in Zimbabwe warned to shut up or face the consequences; or students and staff in Palestine unable to get through checkpoints in order to continue study.”
A proposed amendment to the motion that would have ensured that “no decision on cutting educational links with Israeli academic institutions will be made without a ballot of all members” was rejected after more than an hour of debate.
Ms Hunt said that she would take advice on how to implement the motion.
Jeremy Newmark, the joint head of the Stop the Boycott campaign, said the motion “would allow for the reintroduction of a boycott of Israeli academia”.
He said: “The UCU has again demonstrated how out of touch it is with the vast majority of its membership and with the wider academic community. This motion does nothing to help the Palestinians.
“Trade unions exist to defend their members in the workplace. Our legal opinion, produced at the request of UCU members, shows that this motion promotes discrimination. It runs counter to all that a trade union should stand for, discriminating against some of its members instead of defending all of them.”
Lorna Fitzsimons, the other joint head of Stop the Boycott, said: “What was true last year remains true today. Boycotts of any kind do nothing to promote peace and moderation in the Middle East [while at the same time] undermining the academic freedom and integrity of British academic institutions.
“A boycott has never been the right answer for those looking to genuinely help Palestinians and Israelis. The way forward must be to build bridges, encourage dialogue and allow ordinary Israelis and Palestinians the opportunity to engage with each other.
“This motion in effect gives licence to harassment and discrimination within academic institutions – the very thing the UCU is supposed to protect its members from.
“As a trade unionist myself, I find it astounding that the union is prepared to contradict its founding principles of protection in the workplace. Ferocious and free debate is, of course, vital within all aspects of society – but only if there is no threat attached to individuals.”