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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Stop renewed UK union Israel boycott campain

The National Executive (NEC) committee of the UCU has passed a motion which will blow oxygen onto the embers of the boycott debate, re-igniting a fire which may still engulf our union. The union's own legal advice tells it that the plan to exclude Israelis – and nobody else - from the international academic community would set us on a collision course with the law. A boycott would be, in effect though not intent, discriminatory against Jews; it would violate the Aims and Objectives of the union; it would violate the norms of academic freedom; it would constitute a restraint of trade for union members who do academic work with Israeli colleagues.

The politics behind the boycott campaign is one-sided and simplistic. Nobody serious believes that the tragic situation of Palestine and Israel is just a morality tale of good Palestinians and bad Israelis or of 'the oppressed' against 'their oppressors'. Rather than embrace one nationalist narrative or the other, internationalist trade unionists should be supporting those who are for peace and those who stand against demonization within both nations.

Rather than ganging up on Israeli trade unionists, scientists, philosophers and artists, we should be supporting those who are fighting bravely and doggedly for peace.

Those who are willing to sacrifice our unity and our integrity to a campaign against Israeli scholars are a small clique in our union. They are capable of winning votes on the NEC and at Congress but they don't have a hope of winning a ballot of the membership - and they know it. Sally Hunt and Linda Newman were elected as General Secretary and President of UCU on anti-boycott platforms in ballots of the whole membership. In recent NEC elections there was a swing against the boycotters with the new election of Engage's Jon Pike.

Last summer the boycotters knew they couldn't bring a majority of the union with them and they watched, horrified, as a groundswell of support emerged amongst the membership for a democratic vote on the question of the boycott.

This momentum was dissipated when the union leadership acted decisively to kill the boycott debate. But in a stark U-turn, the NEC has now reversed that decision.

Engage campaigned for a ballot because we believed that 120,000 academics and librarians, college lecturers and administrators should make such an important decision themselves. But when the leadership of the union ended the damaging 'debate' we accepted that move in good faith as an end to the matter. It turns out we were naive to trust in the ability of the union leadership to protect the vital interests of its own union.

It is now time to publish the legal advice that the union has been given so that we can all judge what it means for ourselves.

The boycott campaign divides the union, imports antisemitism into the union and puts the union in serious legal jeopardy; it makes UK academics look absurd around the world and it aids those university managements who seek to benefit out of the toxic disarray endemic in union.

The union should be discussing what we can do to help Palestinians who are suffering under Israeli occupation and who are also under threat from Iranian-backed Islamist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. We should be discussing what we can do to help the Israeli peace movement, for which the universities constitute an important base. We should be discussing what we can do to support people in Israel who oppose anti-Arab racism and people in Palestine who oppose antisemitism.

The boycotters don't want to discuss Palestine and Israel, they only want to discuss their proposal to exclude Israelis from British campuses. They present themselves as the most serious supporters of Palestinians but they split and poison the Palestine solidarity movement around the world.

The boycott campaign tries to define people who support an independent Palestinian state but who oppose making our campuses Israeli-free, as enemies of Palestine. But Engage wholeheartedly supports the Palestinians in their struggle against occupation and for independence while also opposing the boycott campaign.

We propose that instead of the union moving against Israelis in Britain it should focus on doing what it can to move towards an end to the occupation of Palestinian territory and to support those who fight for peace in the Middle East.

The situation in our union is more serious now than it has been before. Now it is not some obsessive Israel-boycotter or some SWP dominated branch bringing the proposal to Congress. It is the NEC of the union.

Now we know that it would violate anti-discrimination law to attempt to exclude Israelis – and nobody else – from UK campuses. To move ahead in violation of the law is wrong.

Anti-discrimination law is not anti-trade union law. This is our law, which unions fought for and won. Unions rely on anti-discrimination law as one element in the fight against racism in the workplace and beyond. We support anti-discrimination law. It is wrong for us ourselves to violate it.

It is inevitable that some UCU members will look to take the union to court if it insists on resurrecting this 'debate' on how to exclude Israelis from UK campuses, journals and conferences. It is good that UCU members have legal rights and it is legitimate for them to argue these in court. The boycotters will again hide behind the rhetoric of free speech. 'It is only a debate that we call for,' they will say, 'we only want to be allowed to listen to our Palestinian colleagues'. To cloak a campaign against Israeli scholars in the rhetoric of free speech is disingenuous. It is not free speech that we oppose, it is not a discussion of Palestinian rights that we oppose, it is not international solidarity that we oppose: it is the campaign to silence Israeli scholars that we oppose.

It is inevitable that legal challenges to the union's bad decisions will be presented by the boycott campaign as the actions of a super-powerful, alien and illegitimate 'Israel lobby'. We should reject this way of thinking. It is legitimate for Jews to organize politically against antisemitism.

It is legitimate for Jews to take legal action against antisemitism. We should clearly reject the idea that Jews who oppose antisemitism are acting in bad faith in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israel. It is not 'criticism of Israel' which is illegitimate; it is the campaign to make our campuses Israeli-free which is illegitimate.

The NEC motion shows how little it has learned by including the following clause: 'Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-semitic'. We live in a world where very much hostility to Israel is antisemitic. Given the history of antisemitism it would be very strange if some 'criticism of Israel' was not antisemitic, wouldn't it? Why would our union insist on defining so much antisemitism in the world as 'not antisemitic'? It is just shameful that our own NEC should have attempted to do this.

We need to organize effectively, again, against this new boycott proposal.
For the text of the resolution, click here.
For Linda Newman's pre-election promises, click here.
For arguments against the boycott campaign, click here.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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