Envoy: Academic boycott not UK policy

British Education minister: Decision will not advance peace in the Middle East.

Students zion sq 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Students zion sq 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The academic boycott against Israel which was imposed Wednesday night by the British Union of Colleges and Universities is not official British policy, and is not supported by the United Kingdom, UK Ambassador to Israel Tom Phillips said on Thursday. "The best way to find a peace solution is to support a dialogue between the two sides," Phillips said in an interview to Israel Radio. "The boycott does not help achieve this goal." Earlier Thursday, British Education Minister Bill Rammell said that he was disappointed with a Universities and Colleges Union's (UCU) decision Wednesday to consider a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. "The decision does not advance the peace process in the Middle East," said Rammell, who joined Jewish organizations in the UK in protesting the decision. The union, which represents 120,000 university teachers, urged its members to consider the "moral implications" of links with Israeli academic institutions. It left it up to local branches to decide whether to actually boycott. A full debate is expected in UCU branches across Britain, with the aim of a vote on an actual boycott at the union's conference next year.
  • Opinion: Britain's obsessive boycotters
  • Analysis: Changing Israel's anti-boycott strategy Motion 30 condemns Israel for its "denial of educational rights" to the Palestinian people and calls for UCU branches to discuss an academic boycott of Israel over the next year. It passed on Wednesday by a vote of 158 to 99, with 17 abstentions. "Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement," the motion said. "Congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students." "Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation... Congress believes that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic," it added. Boycott proponents had tried for three years to pass such a motion, Prof. David Newman of Ben-Gurion University told The Jerusalem Post from the conference. He said it was incumbent upon Israeli academics to defy the union. "Israel academics should do more research, share more resources, participate in more scientific studies, do more sabbaticals, do more visits to workshop and seminars with [their] British counterparts," Newman said. He said it was now up the institutions to decide whether to "defend the right of true academic freedom... and not allow a union to impose its will on an institution." Education Minister Yuli Tamir sharply criticized the UCU decision, calling it a "surprising move that does not conform with reality." "I intend to hold talks with heads of academic institutions in Britain in the coming days, and together with Israeli deans we will work to neutralize the boycott and minimize the harm it causes," she said. "I believe that like we did in the past, we will succeed in making this decision actually noneffective." Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, called on UCU members who were "rightly outraged" by the decision to work toward reversing it. "Now is the time to strengthen the kinds of relationships that will bring all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together and... create a better understanding of the complex issues," he said. Ofir Frankel, executive director of Bar-Ilan University's International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, said it was very disturbing to behold such discrimination in the UK, a nation that holds itself up "as the cradle of fairness, freedom of speech and academic debate." "The Union has allowed itself to be taken hostage by a small extremist minority, simply because the majority of its members have remained silent," he said. "Boycotts are never the way forward," Academic Friends of Israel director Ronnie Fraser said. Sixty percent of British universities were working with Israeli counterparts, he said, and cooperation was the most effective route to dialogue and cooperation. "Academic freedom is part of the fabric of modern society," Union of Jewish Students campaign director Mitch Simmons said. "The exchange of information and the advancement of human knowledge should have no borders." He said he hoped "more mature" UCU members would have the boycott policy overturned. World Union of Jewish Students chair Tamar Shchory cited growing hostility toward Jewish students and Israel on campuses. She said the UCU had chosen a one-sided position on a very complex issue. Wednesday was a "sad day for peace and academic freedom," said Lorna Fitzsimons, chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center, an independent organization devoted to creating a better understanding of Israel in the UK. She said the vast majority of Israeli academics were leading exponents of a two-state solution and have been at the forefront of the peace movement and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. "This vote actually damages the chances for peace, as well as the credibility of UK academia," Fitzsimons said. Earlier Wednesday, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt called on members to ignore the call for an academic boycott of Israel. She said the boycott motion was "unlikely to win majority support from UCU members" and should not be a major priority for the union. "Today's motion on boycott means all branches now have a responsibility to consult all of their members on the issue and I believe that every member should have the opportunity to have [his] say," Hunt said. "The earlier motion means that any future calls for a boycott must pass key tests before a boycott can implemented." "I simply do not believe that the majority of UCU members support an academic boycott of Israel, or that they believe it should be a major priority for the union. Most want us to retain dialogue with trade unionists on all sides - not just those we agree with," she said.