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Once again, an academic trade union has voted to support a boycott of Israel. The University and College Union has passed motions that "condemn the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions" and "a moratorium on research and cultural collaborations with Israel." It has also claimed that "criticism of Israel cannot [and it is implied cannot ever] be construed as anti-Semitic."
We have, of course, been here before. The decision by the Association of University Teachers' (AUT) Council in 2005 to boycott two Israeli universities provoked a massive international outcry and a backlash inside the union itself. The union was forced to hold a Special Council by its own members, who overturned the boycott by a massive majority.
The next year, NATFHE, Britain's other academic union, supported a policy to "boycott those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from Israeli Government policies." However, this policy never took effect; NATFHE and AUT merged a couple of days later to form the University and College Union.
After the merger, it was clear that a fight was raging for the heart and soul of the new union between the supporters and opponents of a boycott. On the one side was the extreme anti-Zionist Socialist Workers Party and its fellow travelers. On the other were groups like Engage and the AWL, left-wing groups that oppose boycotts and campaign against modern anti-Semitism. It was obvious that the problem was not going away.
The British Jewish community was aware of this and moved to work against the academic boycott, as well as the emerging boycott movement in other sectors. The Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council established the Fair Play Campaign Group as a framework to coordinate actions by a wide variety of Jewish and Israel organizations in Britain. The Fair Play Campaign Group has promoted a variety of projects for cooperative work between Israeli and British academia, encouraged Israeli universities to take the boycott threat seriously, and coordinated political options for the UCU Congress itself.
We supported a delegation of Israeli academics, together with the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, that came to the UK to meet union branches, parliamentarians and others. And for the Congress, we also ensured that Israeli students - Jewish, Arab and Druze - were able to show the positive and inclusive nature of Israeli academia.
On arrival at the Bournemouth International Centre, the venue for the Congress, the first thing UCU delegates saw was a Socialist Workers Party stall, with "George Bush - War Criminal" and "Freedom for Palestine" posters. Every delegate to the Congress was given the literature of the anti-Zionist Stop the War Coalition with their official packs and on their chairs. While the delegates were polite, the atmosphere was immediately hostile to the Israelis.
Sally Hunt was the secretary-general of the AUT during the 2005 boycott debate. After she was elected to the same role in UCU, she appeared to take the boycott issue discreetly in hand. She promised in her election manifesto to take any boycott motion to a full ballot of the UCU's 120,000 members. She gave private assurances that she would personally ensure the boycott would not pass. UCU even held a seminar on May 3 that came up with concrete proposals to support Palestinian academics without boycotting Israelis.
On the day, though, the union leadership failed. The paper produced on May 3 was never sent to delegates, enabling the boycott supporters to claim that boycotting Israel was the only way to support Palestinians. Hunt herself gave a principled anti-boycott statement in her address to the Congress, but didn't follow it up with any meaningful political action. Supporters of the boycott successfully confused the issue by claiming that this motion wasn't the final decision, but the start of a 12-month debate on the issue. However, this is not reflected in the text of the motion itself.
The main motion on the academic boycott of Israel passed with 158 votes in favor and 99 against.
UCU's leadership is now desperately back-peddling and trying to downplay the significance of this decision. It has failed to realize the damage that it has done to the reputation of British academia as a whole, much as the recent National Union of Journalists boycott tainted all British journalists as biased. Already one international research foundation has asked British universities not to apply to its $150 million grant process as a protest against the boycott.
It is now incumbent on the UCU's leadership to decide what it wants to do. Does it want to be a union that most academics are proud of, or one that they are ashamed of?
Most importantly, there is the question of whether Sally Hunt will keep quiet, or honor her manifesto commitment to put the issue of an academic boycott to the whole membership of UCU though a ballot, so regular UCU members can have their voices heard.
Doing nothing leaves UCU open to international ridicule. Only by letting the membership bring this boycott saga to a close will it be able to function as a serious trade union.
The writer is CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council and a Board member of the Fair Play Campaign Group.