Academic union slammed for boycott call

UK's University College Union accused of "ethnically cleansing" itself of Israel supporters.

oxford u 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
oxford u 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The largest academic trade union in the UK has been accused of "ethnically cleansing" itself of Israel supporters and Jews after repeating its 2007 call for a boycott of Israeli academia at its annual conference in Bournemouth last week. The University College Union (UCU), the UK's largest trade union for academics, lecturers and researchers, passed a motion calling to discuss, at branches of the union across the country, a boycott call of Israeli academia. Defying a warning from the union's leadership that they would render a boycott call void if it carried, a small number of fringe members in the union managed to push through a motion in support of a call to discuss a boycott. "The boycott and sanctions call makes life very uncomfortable on campus for Jewish and Israeli students and lecturers," said Ronnie Fraser, chair of the Academic Friends of Israel, who attended the conference. "Whereas in 2007 there was a proper debate about boycotting Israel, this year it was not a debate but a procession of speakers one after the other demonizing Israel and their actions in Gaza. This was because over the last two years the Socialist Workers Party has ethnically cleansed Congress of any Jewish or Zionist opposition to their racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic policies." Among a number of motions critical of Israel, two motions that called for a boycott passed. Motion 28 demanded that the British government ban arms sales and economic support to Israel, a ban on imports of all goods from settlements and to expel Israel's ambassador. It also affirmed support "for the Palestinian call for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign". This motion was declared "void and of no effect" by the union's leadership. In light of this, and to meet legal requirements, the wording of Motion 29, proposed by seasoned boycott activist Tom Hickey from Brighton University, was changed from "congress affirms support for the Palestinian call for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign" to "congress urges branches to discuss prior to Congress 2010 the Palestinian call for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign." The amended motion was accepted by the UCU, who voted to support both the amendment and the motion. The outcome is that UCU has voted to host a Trade Union conference to "investigate the lawful implementation of the strategy, including an option of institutional boycotts." UCU insisted there was no call to boycott but a discussion in general terms. "UCU delegates amended Motion 29 following legal advice that to pass it without amending it would be unlawful. Another motion (28) was ruled as void and of no effect. To clarify, there is no call for a boycott from UCU Congress," the spokesman said. "Motion 29 calls on branches to discuss in general terms the call for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign and we presume nobody would wish to stop independent trade union branches from having such a discussion, particularly following the similar decision made at the Scottish Trade Union Congress," the spokesman added. This was refuted by Jeremy Newmark from the Stop the Boycott Campaign. "It's not a 'boycott call' per se, but a pro-boycott motion that makes UCU help organize boycotts." Speaking for the Campaign, Newmark said: "Once again the now annual UCU debate exposes the warped priorities of those who promote an academic boycott. They claim to fight for democracy, human rights and tolerance yet they constantly contradict these values: They declined to discuss allowing all union members to vote on the boycott. "At a time when trade unions should be focusing energy on the impact of the economic crisis on their members, some pro-boycotters declared that they wanted to see the UCU be forced to court to defend an unlawful boycott. It is no wonder that UCU's lawyers took the pre-emptive step of declaring one motion null and void, but we believe another motion is also unlawful. [General secretary] Sally Hunt and the UCU leadership should have learnt after two years of passing boycott motions and then abandoning them once they prove illegal," Newmark added. The union also voted to hold a one-day conference on anti-Semitism, but rejected an amendment calling for an investigation into resignations from the union "apparently in connection with perceptions of institutional anti-Semitism within the union." Meanwhile, a UCU member has been accused of peddling anti-Semitism at the conference. Speaking at a fringe meeting at the conference, UCU branch secretary at University College London (UCL), Sean Wallis, said the union should debate a boycott whether legal or not. One of the threats to debating such a motion he said was from lawyers backed by those with "bank balances from Lehman Brothers that can't be tracked down." He was allegedly referring to an online conspiracy theory that claims Jews transferred $400 billion from Lehman Brothers to untraceable bank accounts in Israel, days before Lehmans filed for bankruptcy. "This lie first appeared on a Web site run by the Barnes Review, an American 'revisionist' organization with a particular interest in Holocaust denial and spread on various right-wing anti-Zionist Web sites," Arieh Kovler said on the Fair Play Campaign Group Web site. "It is not entirely obvious what Mr Wallis is referring to by claiming that legal threats against UCU are funded by "bank balances from Lehmann Brothers that can't be tracked down. Perhaps he could clarify his remarks." Fraser called for UCL to invoke its disciplinary process "as anti-Semitic remarks of this nature are in breach of the University College's equality and discrimination rules" and called on the Board of Deputies of British Jews to take action. This is just the type of anti-Semitic incident the Board should publicly oppose because Wallis is a research fellow at one of our major universities," Fraser said. "As a linguist expert, Wallis should be perfectly aware of what he is saying. He is also branch secretary [of UCL], which has many Jewish staff members, and UCL is a very popular institution with both Jewish and Israeli students."