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A few days ago the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK announced the termination of its involvement with plans for an academic boycott of Israel, because such an action would be illegal under British law. And so one five-year-old anti-Israeli battle may have come to an end.
The boycott campaign against Israel on campus in the 21st century has its origins in the United Kingdom. It can be traced back to an open letter by academics in The Guardian on April 6, 2002. Since then there have been many efforts to organize anti-Israeli actions both on campuses and in broader academic frameworks in several countries. In some universities these have led to outbursts of anti-Semitism accompanied by violence.
The most recent campaign against Israeli academics in the United Kingdom came at the annual conference of the UCU at the end of May 2007 in Bournemouth. A motion was passed there calling for a debate on a comprehensive and consistent boycott of Israeli academic institutions. One hundred fifty-eight delegates voted in favor and 99 against.
One important actor against the boycott was the Bar Ilan university-based International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB). Another was Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), an independent international group of faculty members. By mid-September 2007 11,000 academics had signed its petition against the boycott, including 33 Nobel Prize winners and 58 college and university heads.
In early August a full-page ad, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, was published in The New York Times in which close to 300 American university and college presidents declared they would not work with institutions that were boycotting Israeli academics.
The ad stated: "Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too."
By the time the boycott was abandoned the number of signatories had risen to over 450. Over 20 Canadian universities came out against the boycott as well.
TONY BLAIR, while still British prime minister condemned the boycott. So did many other British politicians. Opposition leader David Cameron of the Conservative party, affirmed his solidarity with Israel saying, "If by Zionist you mean that the Jews have the right to a homeland in Israel and the right to a country then I am a Zionist."
There were many individual actions as well. The American Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg decided not to travel to Britain for a lecture at Imperial College in London. The Goldhirsh Foundation, an American $150 million research sponsor, stated that it would not fund British research anymore. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz announced that he would sue UK universities and British academics who supported the boycott, using a variety of legal tactics.
The battle surrounding the UCU motion showed many recurring elements from earlier boycott attempts. Yet a number of new ones also came to the fore.
Ronnie Fraser, director of the UK organization Academic Friends of Israel, believes that the original boycott leaders have been supplanted and that the trade union campaign against Israel is now centrally orchestrated by extreme left-wing bodies.
THE RECENT campaign also confirms earlier assessments that the extreme Left's interest in the Middle East issue does not derive from concern about Palestinians. One can gauge this from the lack of reaction when Palestinians murder each other or when hundreds of them are killed in Iraq by other Arabs. For the extreme Left the boycott action is primarily a tool to regain a place on the British public stage.
A number boycott opponents probably did not act out of sympathy for Israel. Otherwise they would have condemned the boycott on earlier occasions. They started realizing that this boycott would be a dangerous precedent and make academia more vulnerable to other attacks.
For many of the pro- as well as anti-boycotters, then, issues were at stake, which went far beyond both the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and academic boycotts.
From the Israeli viewpoint the victory in one battle should not be interpreted wrongly. A few years ago, when there was a temporary lull in the boycott efforts, Israeli authorities and university managements thought that they could ignore the matter further. They were rudely awakened in 2005 when the boycott issue was successfully raised again in the UK.
The numerous diehard enemies of Israel on campuses in the UK and elsewhere will continue their war for many years to come. Therefore the abandonment of the UCU boycott is an opportunity for reflection on how to continue to turn Israel's accusers on the campus systematically into the accused.
The author is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His book Academics against Israel and the Jews will appear next month.