BRIGHTON, England - Two very different groups of academics met at the University of Brighton on Wednesday. On one side of the table were five local representatives of Britain's University and College Union, the sponsors of a resolution proposing an academic boycott of Israel. On the other were four Israeli academics who came to Britain to fight the proposal. They only managed to agree on one issue: Their argument should be conducted politely.
"Israeli universities cooperate with the occupation, and therefore, all coopertion with them should be boycotted," declared Tom Hickey, one of the Britons. "Israel commits terrible, exceptional crimes in the occupied territories."
However, he added that he would be willing to cooperate with any Israeli college that publicly denounced its government's activities.
Dr. Jonathan Rynhold of Bar-Ilan University retorted angrily: "You are imposing standards on Israel, and Israeli academe, that you do not demand of any other country, not even British academe, of which you are a part. And you treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if it were completely one-sided."
"It is one-sided," responded Hickey.
The UCU proposal is part of a growing wave of British initiatives to boycott Israel. These include decisions for an academic boycott approved by the AUT and NATFHE the two lecturers' unions that later merged to form the 120,000-strong UCU in 2005 and 2006, respectively; last month's decision by Britain's National Union of Journalists to boycott Israeli products; the Anglican Church's decision to divest from companies doing business with the Israel Defense Forces; a demand for Israel's expulsion from the World Medical Association by 130 British doctors; and boycott calls by leading British architects.
Though both AUT and NATFHE approved academic boycotts, the decisions became void when the two merged last year. Therefore, Hickey has introduced a new boycott proposal at the UCU's annual conference, which takes place on May 30 and June 1. Among other things, the proposal demands that no more European Union funds reach Israeli universities.
Worried by the growing trend, Israeli academe which largely ignored the early boycott proposals has geared up to fight this one.
"In practice, our work has just begun," said Ofir Frankel, who coordinates the activities of Bar-Ilan's International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom. "If we manage to thwart the proposed boycott at the conference at the end of the month, that would be wonderful, but our goals are designed for the longer-term. We want to influence public opinion among British academics and provide them with a true picture of Israeli academe."
"Over the last year, you can sense that Israeli academe has united behind our goal," she continued, adding that she plans to attend the conference with a group of Palestinian students who study at Israeli universities, and they will present their work at the same booth.
At the Brighton meeting, Professor Zvi Hacohen of Ben-Gurion University, a senior official in Israel's lecturers' union, presented two arguments against the boycott: "First, there is widespread cooperation between our universities and Palestinian and Jordanian universities; the proposed boycott will damage this cooperation. Additionally, you must understand that Israeli institutions and universities are not political organizations, and they have no influence over the policies of the government or the parties."
But the British academics were not impressed. "My belief that we need to work for a boycott was only strengthened," said one, Bob Brecher. "The very fact that this delegation came here shows that the academic establishment in Israel is central and influential."
From Brighton, the Israelis proceeded to Birmingham and Manchester to meet undecided voters; they also met with British parliamentarians.