Foes of Academic Boycott Are Making Their Last Stand

Opponents of a proposed British boycott of Israeli academics are making their final pitch before members of Britain’s largest trade union cast their votes this week on two boycott motions.

The University and College Union is meeting Wednesday through Friday at the sea resort of Bournemouth, on the southern coast of England.

The union will debate two motions calling for an outright boycott of Israeli academic institutions and seeking a “moratorium on research and cultural collaborations with Israel.”

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.

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.”

If the motion passes, among the recommendations are “for members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions” and for guidance to members on “appropriate forms of action.”

In an effort to counter the boycott, a group of Arab and Jewish Israeli students are hosting 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 say could be affected if a boycott goes ahead. They also will talk to delegates about the achievements of Israeli universities and showcase 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 Ofir Frankel, executive director of the International Advisory Board, which is sponsoring 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 is 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 defend 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.”

The Israeli students aren’t the only ones making their case in advance of the union vote.

Last week a delegation of senior Israeli academics returned to Israel after 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.”

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