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The academic and cultural boycott of Israel debate is likely to return this month as the trade union conference season, that began in April and culminates with the Trade Union Congress in September, continues.
The Association of University Teachers (AUT), which last year passed a motion calling for a boycott of the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University before it was eventually overturned, holds its conference this week.
It is believed the AUT will not have a boycott motion on the agenda, however a commission, set up by its Special Council after the overruling of the boycott motion, will propose that a boycott be used as a last resort and only implemented when requested by a trade union at a university or college concerned.
At the end of May, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), the largest university and college trade union in the UK, will discuss two motions at its annual conference.
One of them calls for academic responsibility, noting "the continuing Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices."
It calls on union members to "consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals and the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies."
The other motion acknowledges the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections: "The conference condemns the hysterical reporting of the result by most of the British news media and the outrageous bias shown by UK government statements against the outcome of a democratic process."
It also calls for the protection and support of Palestinian academic institutions "in the face of continual attacks by Israel's government."
At last year's NATFHE conference, a motion supporting the right of AUT to boycott Israeli universities was passed virtually unanimously. However parts of the motion had to be rewritten after legal advice.
This year the motion is in the form of a "silent boycott" to ensure that if a boycott is passed, individuals will not be identified, the union will not be seen as a promoter of a boycott and to avoid any legal proceedings or accusations of misusing union funds.
NATFHE is set to merge with AUT after the conference. Thus it is more likely that a more substantial boycott motion will return next year.
A boycott of Israel is likely to be discussed at a number of other upcoming conferences. Some of the unions work closely with Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and also the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), a non-governmental organization accused of an anti-Israel agenda.
A PSC trade union conference, sponsored by 13 unions, was held in March. Entitled "Palestinian Workers Challenging the Occupation," speakers included Diana Buttu, legal adviser to the PLO; Keith Sonnet, deputy general secretary of UNISON; Barry Camfield, assistant to the general secretary of Transport and General Workers Union; and Shaher Saed, general secretary of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions.
At the conference, Saed called for an international campaign of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
The PSC works closely with the trade union movement in Britain to "further the Palestinian cause and raise awareness of the plight of Palestinian workers within the labor and trade union movement." It also work closely with the Palestinian trade union movement, encouraging twinning, delegations to the territories and building solidarity links.
Roger Lyons, chairman of Trade Union Friends of Israel, said, "We are faced with a constant challenge in today's trade union movement to ensure that understandable support for Palestinian self-determination is not translated into bias and boycotts against Israel. It is important that British trade unionists demonstrate support for Israeli and Palestinian trade unions and working people to help strengthen their efforts towards peace and social justice in the region."
Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel, said, "The unions offer support when there is right-wing anti-Semitism but do not acknowledge the existence of left wing anti-Semitism. Any protest against it is labelled as an attempt to silence critics of Israel. When this happens, the unions should defend its members against discrimination, yet all too often they compound the situation by failing to recognize and often actively denying the existence of a problem."
Meanwhile, a number of trade unions, including NATFHE, are supporting a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Trafalgar Square on May 20. Organized by a host of groups, including PSC, Palestine Return Center and Friends of Al-Aksa, flyers call on Israel and the European Union to "stop starving Palestinians, recognize Palestinian democracy and end the occupation."
Supporting the accusation that Israel has decided to strengthen the economic blockade of the Palestinians, Dov Weisglass, a senior adviser Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is quoted on the flyer, "It is like an appointment with a dietician, the Palestinians will get a lot thinner but won't die."
The flyers also urge people to write to their MPs and European MPs, stating, "The Palestinian people need your help" as "Israel's brutal occupation of the Palestinian people is creating a humanitarian crisis."
They also call on Israel to "dismantle the 'Apartheid Wall,' abide by international law and recognize the democratically elected Palestinian government." While they do not call for the Hamas government to recognize Israel's right to exist, they call for an acknowledgement of "Palestine's right to exist."