Boycott Debate Is Back

Some British academics again try to isolate colleges and professors in Israel -- and other academics see the movement as offensive.
May 12, 2006

An editorial in The Guardian this week noted that Britain's two major faculty unions are engaged in a protracted and bitter fight with the government over salaries. Faced with the need to keep unity strong and to win concessions from the government, the editorial explained that some union leaders thought they had found a perfect solution: Attacking Israeli academics.

One of the faculty unions -- the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education -- is getting ready to vote on a resolution that would call on members to consider staying away from Israeli colleges or professors unless they specifically oppose a series of policies opposed by the union. The proposal has reignited tensions over anti-Israel boycotts that became quite intense last year when the other major union in British academe started its own boycott and then called it off -- amid widespread criticism from American faculty groups.

The latest boycott proposal -- which will be voted on later this month and which calls Israel's policies ones of "apartheid" -- differs from last year's in several ways. Last year's boycott was stated as general policy, but applied only to two Israeli universities: Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa. This year's resolution (#198C from this link) is at once more narrow and more broad. It calls only for individual faculty members to consider "their own responsibility" and to "consider the appropriateness of a boycott." But it appears to apply to all Israeli academics and institutions -- and it exempts those Israeli academics who "publicly dissociate themselves" from the positions of the Israeli government.

That provision may seem like an acknowledgment of something pointed out by boycott critics last year and this year: Israeli academics as a group are among those in Israeli society most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and among those most likely to question decisions of Israel's government. But the provision has also infuriated many academics in Britain and elsewhere because it effectively sets up a political litmus test for Israeli academics (if they take certain stands, they are OK to deal with), and the idea of subjecting academics to political tests offends standards of academic freedom in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere.

It is unclear whether the boycott proposal will pass -- and there have been press projections both ways. Generally, the leadership of British academic unions is very supportive of Palestinians and to the left of the rank and file. For example, another resolution on which the faculty union will be voting seeks to condemn those who question Hamas with "hysterical reporting."

If the resolution does pass, the practical impact may be minimal. The two faculty unions in Britain merge this summer, and so the boycott would not apply. But many academics in Britain and elsewhere say that there is a larger impact from having professors there seen as obsessed with the Middle East when they are unable to achieve their goals at home.

"People start to think of the unions as nothing by Israel-haters," said David Hirsh, a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmith College of the University of London. "At this moment, we're in quite a difficult dispute with management" over wages and some professors are saying "why do we want to listen to the union" when it is viewed as having misplaced priorities, said Hirsh, who is a member of the union at his institution. "This kind of boycott motion gets in the way of the core business of academic unions."

Hirsh is one of the leaders of Engage, a group of British academics opposed to the boycott. Hirsh said that, if the boycott is approved, "the world will think of British academic unions as anti-Semitic." He said he does not believe that to be true, but thinks that many of the most active members of the union "see America and Israel as the greatest evils in the world."

Leaders of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education declined to answer questions about the boycott proposal, saying that they did not have time to do so. One of the most prominent British academic supporters of the boycott is Sue Blackwell, who teaches English at the University of Birmingham. Blackwell maintains a Web site with text and links about why she backs a boycott, as well as links to Palestinian calls for a boycott of Israeli higher education.

The dispute in Britain last year crossed the pond to American academe and is already doing so again this year, as scholars take note of what is going on. Major scholarly associations and faculty unions in the United States all denounced the boycott last year. The American Association of University Professors drafted a statement condemning academic boycotts and organized an international conference about academic boycotts. But the conference was called off amid criticism that too many pro-boycott academics had been invited and after anti-Semitic materials were accidentally distributed to conference attendees.

Cary Nelson, who was recently elected as the AAUP's next president, said that he couldn't say for sure how the association would respond to a new boycott but that he had long been opposed to such boycotts and that AAUP policies strongly opposed them. "Dialogue is almost always preferred to the cessation of dialogue," he said.

Nelson also criticized the idea of any boycott that would ask professors to consider which Israeli professors were sufficiently distanced from their government to merit continued contact. "People have a whole range of complex positions," Nelson said, and shouldn't be considered as either supportive or critical of Israel. "People's positions don't fall into simple categories," he said.

The return of the boycott movement to British academe is taking place "at the worst possible time," Nelson said. He said that "on so many grounds," professors' groups worldwide are finding how much they have in common in terms of salaries, the growth of part-time positions, and academic freedom. He noted that he has received numerous resolutions and other gestures of support from international academic groups since he was arrested as part of a protest against New York University, which has stopped recognizing a union of teaching assistants. "This kind of international solidarity is very important," he said.

One sign of that solidarity: In the current British dispute over faculty salaries, one of the professors' associations that has sent a letter of support is the primary faculty group in Israel.


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