Boycott, shmoycott

There is no British academic boycott of Israeli universities, nor will British academia ever consent to one.

boycott israel 88 (photo credit: )
boycott israel 88
(photo credit: )
I write this column with some hesitation. Ever since last month's decision at the annual congress of Britain's University & College Union (UCU) to endorse a motion initiating a year-long debate on the merits - and demerits - of boycotting Israeli universities, I have been inundated with calls to make some public statement about this vote. Most of them have come from friends and colleagues in Israel where, it seems to me, measured concern has been overshadowed by paranoia bordering on panic. We all need to calm down. And it is in furtherance of this aim that I address my Israeli brethren now. I begin, as a lifelong student of British trade unions, by making two obvious points. The first is that most British workers join trade unions as a means of protecting their pay and conditions of service. They pay their subscription, and they expect their pay and conditions to be protected. Very few are interested in holding union office (which is generally unpaid) or in attending branch meetings, and fewer still are keen to become delegates at the annual union conference. Historically (there are exceptions) trade union conferences are quite unrepresentative of the rank and file. But this means that activists with ulterior motives find it easy to (a) pack branch meetings; (b) get appointed as conference delegates; and (c) present, at those branch meetings, political motions which, when passed, find a place on the conference agenda. I speak from experience here as I come from a trade union family background, am a longstanding member of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), and was at one time chairman of its London Committee. THE SECOND obvious point still worth making is probably less evident to an Israeli audience than in Britain. The old AUT was really a professional association of academics. Its ethos was academic throughout. Its members knew and understood the value of concepts such as academic freedom. The union with which it merged two years ago - the National Association of Teachers in Further & Higher Education (NATFHE) - to form the UCU was a very different creature. NATFHE catered to teachers in Further Education colleges and in the old polytechnics and colleges of higher education. The FE colleges are not academic institutions at all, and those who teach in them are not academics. The former polytechnics - raised to university status in 1992 - were not academic institutions either. That is not to say that some of those who taught in them were not and are not very fine teachers and researchers. They were and they are. But the polytechnics did not enjoy academic autonomy (they could not confer their own degrees) and whatever academic freedom existed in them was qualified, and subject to a stark managerialist approach designed to counter any notion of academic self-governance. Again, I speak from experience because in 1994 I moved from the University of London to a former polytechnic (Middlesex), where it was made clear to me that the managers (of whom I was one) ruled. The merger of the smaller AUT and the larger NATFHE to create the UCU has thus created a mega-union in which a very substantial number of members are not and never have been academics. The notion of academic freedom, and of its centrality for the good conduct of the academy, is quite foreign to them. On the other hand, NATFHE - first and foremost a trade union, not a professional association - had a history of left-wing political activism, of which one facet was a Marxist-inspired antipathy to Jewish nationalism and to the idea of self-determination for the Jewish people. Add to this a goodly measure of anti-colonialism, and a stubborn determination to view Israel merely as a colonial outpost of Anglo-America, and you have a fertile ground in which the boycotters were able to plant their seeds. SO I WAS really not at all surprised that, at the first annual conference of the merged union, the UCU should have adopted a motion initiating a boycott debate. But we all have to understand what it means and what it does not mean. There is at the time of writing no UK academic boycott of Israeli universities. Nor, in my view, will British academia as a whole ever consent to one. Within days of the UCU meeting, a wide range of British academics and academic institutions rushed to condemn any idea of a boycott. Several high-profile British academics (for example, Prof. Dame Nancy Rothwell, of Manchester University) resigned from the UCU in protest. Many others put their names to petitions and statements critical of the UCU initiative. The truth is that the UCU leadership is embarrassed by what happened at its first annual meeting last month, and by the public furor it has caused, which is deflecting the energies of the union from much more pressing bread-and-butter issues of greater concern to many more of its members. IN THESE circumstances, what is the intelligent response to adopt? It is not, I respectfully suggest, for the Knesset to demean itself by devoting precious debating time to this sad charade. It is not for Israeli politicians to work themselves into a rage, which can only feed the inflated and wholly disproportionate sense of self-satisfaction that the boycotters want desperately to feel. I put my signature to a dignified, measured rebuttal. And I agreed to debate the issue on BBC radio with the proposer of the boycott motion, Thomas Hickey (of Brighton University, a former polytechnic). If his motion is debated at my UCU branch, I shall doubtless make my contribution. Beyond that, I propose to do nothing more at present but sit back, relax and enjoy watching the mess that the boycotters have got the UCU into. The writer is professor of politics & contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, England.