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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Lecturers' leader warns against Israel boycott

Today is the day...
James Meikle, education correspondent
Wednesday May 30, 2007

The head of the university lecturers' union will today urge members not to back calls for an academic boycott of Israel.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the 120,000-member University and College Union, will tell its annual conference in Bournemouth that those calling for a halt to university links with Israel are out of step with the rest of the union. Most members "want us to retain dialogue with trade unionists on all sides, to talk to all sides, not just those we agree with", she will say. "Personally I simply do not believe that the majority of our members support an academic boycott of Israel or that they believe it should be our major priority."
This afternoon delegates from Brighton University and the University of East London will urge the conference to condemn the "complicity of Israel academia in the occupation [of Palestine]" and will ask members to back the call of Palestinian trade unions "for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli institutions".
The conference will also be urged that "passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic". Union members should consider the "moral implications" of new or existing links with Israeli academic institututions. The call comes after American Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg cancelled a visit to Britain because of what he saw as a widespread anti-Israel and anti-Semitic current within British opinion.
The boycott issue has been hotly debated over the last five years by academics within the two unions which merged into the UCU last year. The Association of University Teachers voted for a boycott in 2005 but it was rejected at a special meeting later that year. The union Natfhe continued to support boycotts at its conference last year but the policy was dissolved when it merged to form the UCU very soon afterwards.
Any new boycott call would cause further international outcry, especially in Israel and the United States, after previous attempts provoked outrage in the Israeli Knesset and around the world.
A couple of days after the Association of University Teachers voted in favour of a boycott in February 2005 the story was front page news in Europe, north America and Asia. In the weeks that followed a delegation of Israeli academics toured UK campuses putting their case and the pressure on the union intensified with a letter to the Guardian from 21 Nobel prizewinners, including Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel, who stated that "academic freedom has never been the property of a few and must not be manipulated by them ... mixing science with politics, and limiting academic freedom by boycotts, is wrong".
There were also grumblings from rank-and-file members who complained that the union was turning its back on bread-and-butter issues like pay and conditions, while absorbed in the boycott row.
However, the move to cut links with some Israeli universities was welcomed by Palestinian trade unions and academics.
Eventually the decision was overturned at a special meeting of the AUT.

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