UK academic boycott efforts come to an end

After seeking legal advice, British University and College Union says move can't implemented.

By HAVIV RETTIG, JOHNNY PAUL
September 28, 2007 20:21
4 minute read.
hebrew u 298 88

hebrew u 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

 
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The British academic boycott of Israel has been defeated as the country's union of academics formally concluded over the weekend that such a boycott "would be unlawful and cannot be implemented," according to a University and College Union (UCU) statement. The decision comes after the UCU sought and received "extensive legal advice" which, according to the union, "makes it clear that making a call to boycott Israeli institutions would run a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation." In May, the UCU's annual congress voted to distribute pro-boycott literature to local UCU chapters encouraging them to discuss the issue at local meetings, alongside an effort to take Palestinian academics on regional tours in support of the proposed boycott. The legal advice, and Friday's decision, not only remove the boycott as a viable policy option for the union, but make clear that the debate itself cannot be conducted within UCU institutions. According to the UCU, "the union has been told that while UCU is at liberty to debate the pros and cons of Israeli policies, it cannot spend members' resources on seeking to test opinion on something which is in itself unlawful and cannot be implemented." The union's announcement comes out of its strategy and finance committee, which concurred unanimously with the recommendation of union General Secretary Sally Hunt. "Since [the May] congress our first priority has always been to keep the union, and its members, safe during what has been a very difficult time," said Hunt in response to the announcement. "I hope this decision will allow all to move forward and focus on what is our primary objective, the representation of our members." The legal advice received by the UCU, as quoted directly in the union statement, was direct and specific: "It would be beyond the union's powers and unlawful for the union, directly or indirectly, to call for, or to implement, a boycott by the union and its members of any kind of Israeli universities and other academic institutions; and that the use of union funds directly or indirectly to further such a boycott would also be unlawful... To ensure that the union acts lawfully, meetings should not be used to ascertain the level of support for such a boycott." "The boycott is like a cancer at the heart of labor movements and we will try and cut it out wherever we find it," said Lorna Fitzsimons, chair of Stop the Boycott campaign and CEO of the British Israel Communication and Research Center (BICOM). "We will continue to win the intellectual argument, showing why any boycott of Israel is unbalanced, unfair and ignores the difficult complexities of the Middle East. "A boycott was never the right answer for those looking to genuinely help Palestinians and Israelis. As Palestinian officials have said all along, punishing Israeli academics achieves nothing and does not help the Palestinians. This should be a lesson to all those who are pushing for a boycott of Israel. It simply doesn't stack up intellectually to put all the blame at Israel's door. A boycott ignores the complexity of the Middle East and the fact that no side has a monopoly on suffering, nor on blame for the conflict." "The UCU has realized at last that an academic boycott is not a legitimate means of political protest," Ofir Frankel, executive director of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB), which has been campaigning against the boycott proposal, responded. In a statement, Frankel quoted Al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh, who told the IAB's first conference "that an international academic boycott of Israel, on pro-Palestinian grounds, is self-defeating as it would only succeed in weakening that strategically important bridge through which the state of war between Israelis and Palestinians could be ended, and Palestinian rights could therefore be restored." "I am glad to see that the UCU has finally seen sense and realized that universities are the place for open dialogue, freedom of speech and liberal thought - all of which a boycott would have prevented," said Prof. David Newman, head of the Geo-Politics Department at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and the official representative of the State of Israel on all matters relating to a potential boycott. "This is now the time for senior British academics to strengthen their ties with their Israeli colleagues and cement links and relationships to make sure a boycott of this nature can never be implemented. I reiterate the call to all academics to maintain an open dialogue and a free exchange of thoughts and ideas as this is the only way a lasting, sustainable peace can be achieved in the Middle East." "I am glad to hear that the proposed boycott policy of the UCU has been deemed illegal and has therefore been abandoned by the UCU executive," said Member of Parliament Andrew Gwynee, chair of Labor Friends of Israel. "However it is important to bear in mind that the proposed boycott was wrong for reasons beyond simply its illegality. Boycotting is a harmful and misguided strategy that does little to advance the case for peace and moderation in the Middle East, as well as undermining the academic freedom and integrity of British academic institutions. Therefore I support the UCU decision to abandon the academic boycott, and commend the strength of the opposition to the boycott that was shown by the UCU leadership, UCU members, the government and wider public." The Israeli embassy in London also welcomed the statement, with embassy spokesman Lior Ben-Dor noting that "it's not the first boycott to be canceled. We hope not to witness any more." •

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