Build bridges not boycotts

After last year's experience, it is not at all clear why the UCU boycott motion appeared at all.

antiboycott ad 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
antiboycott ad 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last Wednesday, the University and College Union Congress, the second in its short history, followed the well-worn path of its inaugural event last year, along with that of its predecessor unions, in proposing a boycott motion against Israeli academics and academic institutions. It came as no surprise that the motion passed; the UCU Congress was hijacked yet again by far-left factions able to use their delegates to push through a policy platform that in no way represents the views of the wider union membership. However, after last year's experience, it is not at all clear why the motion appeared at all. After UCU passed a boycott motion at its inaugural congress in May 2007, a coalition of academics, education groups, the British Jewish community and pro-Israel organizations formed Stop the Boycott. This coalition aimed to convince UCU to overturn its pro-boycott policy by demonstrating why the proposals would be bad for Palestinians, bad for Israelis, and ultimately work against the cause of peace. We called for a ballot of all UCU members on the question of a boycott - a ballot we were sure we would win. UCU members also began to mobilize in support of a ballot, and even the Socialist Workers Party felt that, in a vote, "the boycott would almost certainly be heavily defeated." However, instead of a ballot, UCU suspended its boycott policy after receiving legal advice stating that: "A boycott call would be unlawful and cannot be implemented," specifically noting that a boycott would infringe discrimination law. UCU NEVER published its legal advice, but the issue seemed to finally be closed. UCU was free to work in solidarity with Palestinian academics, but could not promote a boycott of Israeli academic institutions without falling foul of discrimination law. In March, against all expectations, the UCU's own National Executive Committee chose to send another boycott motion to this year's congress. This motion, while worded slightly differently, seemed to be similar to last year's in all essential points. Against this background, we in Stop the Boycott chose to seek our own legal opinion on the pro-boycott motion. The opinion, written by two eminent lawyers, confirms what the UCU already knows: The motion, if implemented, would breach both anti-discrimination law and the union's own equal opportunities policy. The motion, stating that UCU members will be encouraged to "discuss the occupation" with "Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating" is in blatant conflict with the union's aim, namely: "To oppose actively all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination whether on the grounds of sex, race, ethnic or national origin, religion...." The UCU's official line is a familiar one: There is no boycott motion. But this claim simply doesn't hold water. The motion asks union members to read pro-boycott "testimony" and then use it to discuss and reflect on "the appropriateness of continued educational links with Israeli academic institutions." THE PRO-BOYCOTT movement itself is a strange creature, with unclear aims. Some campaigners say it's supposed to help end the occupation of the West Bank. Others see it as "a transcendental initiative... to chip away at the foundation of moral legitimacy" of Israel. Still others among its promoters see it as simply a tactic to "drive the Zionists insane." Some want to target Israeli institutions alone. However, they forget a crucial fact: Institutions are made up of people. Some allow a special exemption from the boycott for Israeli Arabs, or any Israeli Jews prepared to pass a "political test" by denying their country and university. The pro-boycott campaigners' positions and justifications shift constantly. Promoting a boycott of Israeli academics has become an end in itself, with different reasons created, depending on who asks why. BEYOND THE semantics of boycott motions, bear in mind a simple fact: The continuing boycott debacle has done nothing to help Palestinians. Rather, it has served to entrench people's positions while damaging the already-fragile UCU, whose international credibility is now under severe strain. Education unions in other countries have written to UCU to ask it not to go down this route again. Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, says in Education Guardian that "There are people who want to see us fall out over Palestine and do nothing else." It is the UCU's own president who submitted the motion, and UCU's own executive that supported it. When regular UCU members find out about this motion, they should look to the union's leaders and ask how they could allow this discriminatory policy to pass yet again. Trade unions see themselves as progressive forces in society with a key role in opposing racism and prejudice. Unions exist to support laws to prevent discrimination. The academic boycott has created a bizarre situation in which some UCU members are proud, even boastful, about trying to force the union to flout the Race Relations Act. JEWISH AND Israeli members are resigning from UCU over the reinstatement of the boycott policy; many more resigned last year and never rejoined. They feel there is no longer a trade union that can represent their interests. Anti-racists and trade unionists should feel deeply uncomfortable about this state of affairs. Unlike last year, the legal position is clear that a boycott of Israeli academics is discriminatory, and that actually implementing the relevant parts of the UCU motion would be unlawful and put the union at risk. Given this, the boycott motion has mainly symbolic significance. We hope that the union will move quickly to clarify that it will not implement this motion, and also to publicly reassure its Jewish and Israeli members and ex-members that it wants to represent rather than discriminate against them. The writer is chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council and joint head of the Stop the Boycott campaign.