LONDON (JTA) Britain's largest trade union for academics passed a motion to circulate Palestinian calls for an academic boycott of Israel to its branches "for information and discussion."
Wednesday's vote by the University and College Union at its first congress in Bournemouth will require members to discuss the issue further over the next year. The motion passed by a vote of 158 to 99.
In a statement, the UCU said the boycott motion means branches "have a responsibility" to consult all of their members on the issue. UCU represents 120,000 workers in further and higher education throughout the United Kingdom.
The motion passed despite comments during the debate by the union's new general secretary, Sally Hunt, that "I do not believe a boycott is supported by the majority of UCU members, nor do I believe that members see it is a priority for the union."
The move is the latest of several British efforts to boycott Israel. Last month the National Union of Journalists passed a motion to boycott Israeli goods. More recently, a group of British doctors and a group of architects called for a boycott within their respective professions.
The union also passed a motion to campaign for the restoration of all international aid to the Palestinian Authority and all revenues that the union says rightfully belong to the authority. Worldwide aid to the Palestinian Authority was stopped when Hamas took control of the government.
Boycott opponents were outraged by the union's vote and called on the UCU to reverse itself.
"Essentially, British trade unions are declaring war on Israel," Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel, told JTA.
Ofir Frankel, executive director of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom based at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said the union "has allowed itself to act as a one-sided player in Middle Eastern politics. It is very disturbing to behold a form of singling out and discrimination happening in the U.K. the U.K. which upholds itself as the cradle of fairness, freedom of speech and academic debate."
Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, said that while the vast majority of academics do not support a boycott, "this decision damages the credibility of British academia as a whole."
In a statement, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said, "These obscene resolutions have all the faults that academics normally deplore in their profession: a superficial and flawed understanding of the subject, clear bias, and antagonism to the open exchange of ideas."
UCU represents 120,000 workers in further and higher education throughout the United Kingdom.
Explaining why Israeli universities deserve to be targeted, Michael Cushman of the London School of Economics said those institutions are symbols of Israeli national identity.
"Senior academics move from universities into ministries and back again," Cushman said during an hourlong debate. "Regularly, lecturers take up their commissions in the Israeli Defence Force as reserve officers to go into the West Bank to dominate, control and shoot the population."
In the British academic world, four attempts have been made to introduce a boycott of Israeli academics since 2002. The University and College Union was created last June by the merger of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, and the Association of University Teachers, the AUT, both of which had initiated their own boycott proposals.
Motions were defeated by the AUT in 2003, and although a motion passed in 2005, it was overwhelmingly overturned at a special council of the union following international outcry.
A boycott motion narrowly passed at the National Association conference in 2006, but the resolution expired with the merger of the unions.
According to the new boycott motion, "Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement."
It goes on to say the union "deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students" and "condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions."
In an effort to counter the boycott, a group of Arab and Jewish Israeli students hosted a stand at the conference to detail academic cooperation projects between Israelis and Arabs and between Israel and the United Kingdom, all of which they said could be affected by the boycott. They also talked to delegates about the achievements of Israeli universities and showcased the projects between Israeli and Palestinian universities, as well as the joint work benefiting Israel's Arab minority, that is threatened by the proposed boycott.
"The stall allows Israeli students to show that a boycott is counterproductive and will hurt the very relationships that will help bring peace in the Middle East," said Frankel of the International Advisory Board, which sponsored the stand. "We also want to take this opportunity to build links with British academics that may advance these valuable projects."
The board was established by Bar-Ilan University in 2005 with the Academic Friends of Israel to respond to calls for boycotts of Israeli academics, fight anti-Israel policies of the British education unions and anti-Semitic incidents on university campuses.
The stall was supported by the Fair Play Campaign Group, part of the Board of Deputies of British Jews' campaign to combat boycott initiatives, to promote cooperation and dialogue in the Middle East, and by the British Friends of Israeli Universities.
Proponents of the boycott measure defended their efforts.
"Israeli universities are complicit in occupation of Palestinian territories and in the harassment and abuse of Palestinian students and lecturers," said Haim Bresheeth, a University of East London lecturer who introduced the motion with Tom Hickey, a lecturer in philosophy at Brighton University. "They are part of the system which imposes closures, curfews and collective punishments, supports military invasions of campuses and arbitrary arrests."
"Taking a stand on these issues is the least that we can do. International action is required to persuade Israeli academics that they must examine the role of their own institutions in denying educational rights to Palestinians."
Along with the Israeli students, a delegation of senior Israeli academics conducted a week of meetings with British counterparts, parliamentarians and journalists in an effort to combat the boycott call.
With the delegation was Miriam Shlesinger, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and a victim of a boycott in 2002. She was removed from the board of a journal at Manchester University on the basis of her Israeli citizenship.
"A boycott against Israel is discriminatory and will achieve no useful purpose," Shlesinger said. "Many academics like myself are acting on behalf of the causes that the UCU and others espouse, except that by deterring us from doing this they are achieving the exact opposite."
Also last week, Steven Weinberg, a University of Texas professor and Nobel laureate, canceled a visit to a London university citing the journalists' boycott and what he perceives to be "a widespread anti-Israel and anti-Semitic current in British opinion."
In a letter to Imperial College he wrote: "I know that some will say that these boycotts are directed only against Israel rather than generally against Jews, but given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than anti-Semitism."
(JTA correspondents Vanessa Bulkacz and Jonny Paul in London, staff writer Ben Harris and copy editor Marc Brodsky in New York contributed to this report.)
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