When Is a Non-Boycott a Boycott?

Britain's faculty union -- widely criticized for two previous votes calling for the ostracizing of Israeli academe -- passes measure urging professors to think about the appropriateness of ties to Israel.
May 29, 2008

For the third time in four years, Britain's main faculty union has passed a resolution questioning the appropriateness of ties between scholars in the United Kingdom and those in Israel. While the measure adopted on a voice vote Wednesday does not formally call for a boycott of Israeli universities -- as earlier measures have -- it singles out for consideration the idea of isolating Israeli universities, and the measure was pushed by British academics who have previously called for a boycott.

The Israel resolution is based on criticism of the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians. The union also passed resolutions criticizing the governments of the United States (over Cuba policy), Sudan (over the genocide in Darfur), Myanmar (over political repression), and Zimbabwe (political repression as well), but none of those resolutions called for British academics to consider whether they should maintain ties to academics in those countries.

The University and College Union has returned to the subject of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians year after year. In British academe, criticism of Israel tends to be much harsher than it is at American universities, and many of those who are active in the professors' union want to take a stand on the issue. But calls for boycotts (or this year's call for professors to seemingly think about a boycott) have been controversial in Britain and elsewhere.

British university administrators have attacked the resolutions, as have many rank-and-file academics who say that they would prefer for the union to focus on bread and butter issues. And many American academic groups, whose members have a range of views on the Middle East, have denounced boycotts as antithetical to academic freedom. Still other critics have noted that many Israeli academics are in fact highly critical of their own government, so isolating them to support the Palestinians may be the equivalent of boycotting the Ivy League to take a stand against the Bush administration.

This year's resolution cites the "continuation of illegal settlement, killing of civilians and the impossibility of civil life, including education" in Palestinian territories and the "apparent complicity of most of the Israeli academy," then goes on to affirm that "criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-semitic" and that "pursuit and dissemination of knowledge are not uniquely immune from their moral and political consequences." The resolution's action is to call for all British professors "to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating."

The union has been stung by criticism over its stance on Israel. Following Wednesday's vote, the headline on the press release was: "UCU delegates vote for international solidarity." Sally Hunt, general secretary of the union, issued a statement in which she framed the resolution as pro-Palestinian, not anti-Israeli. "Because of the constant misreporting of the motions considered by UCU's Congress, I feel I have to state that we have passed a motion to provide solidarity with the Palestinians, not to boycott Israel or any other country's academic institutions," Hunt said.

The Guardian reported that Universities UK, an organization of vice chancellors (or presidential equivalents) of British universities, issued a statement distancing itself from the faculty group. "We believe a boycott of this kind, advocating the severing of academic links with a particular nationality or country, is at odds with the fundamental principle of academic freedom," the statement said. "Speculation about a potential boycott serves no useful purpose and damages the international reputation of UK higher education."

The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement after the vote calling the union's measure "a cynical and perverse violation of academic freedom and anti-discrimination principles."


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