LONDON (JTA) — When the threat of a new boycott against Israeli academics emerged from the annual conference of the British University and College Union of lecturers’ conference in May, Israel supporters turned to London attorney Anthony Julius.
Well known for his hard line against anti-Semitism disguised as criticism of Israel, Julius went on the attack.
He promised free legal assistance to any academic affected by the threatened boycott, and wrote the union’s general secretary that he considered the union’s motion — 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” — to be both a boycott motion and anti-Semitic.
Last week when the union, known by the acronym UCU, altered its motion to drop the latest boycott call, the victory was cheered by Israel supporters and came as a relief to government officials and university heads in Britain who saw the repeated attempts to organize anti-Israel boycotts as an embarrassment.
“The U.K. government is wholly opposed to any academic boycott of Israel,” said British Foreign Minister Bill Rammell, who is due to visit Israel later this week. “The problem with boycotts is that they make the job of progressives more difficult and they reinforce the arguments of hard-liners.”
Shortly before the latest threat was aborted, boycott opponents published a legal opinion by two prominent lawyers, Michael Beloff and Pushpinder Saini, which argued that boycotting Israeli academics is a violation of the British anti-discrimination law and the union’s own rules.
The UCU consulted its own lawyers, who apparently warned the union against boycott.
The latest boycott call originated at the conference in May, when the union voted for a motion to consider the boycott and to “disseminate the testimonies” of a UCU delegation to the Palestinian-populated territories and use the testimonies to “promote a wide discussion of the appropriateness of continued educational links with Israeli academic institutions.”
The general secretary of the union, Sally Hunt, insisted that the motion was not a call to boycott Israeli academic institutions but one in support of Palestinian colleagues.
Following the UCU conference 12 academics, led by Oxford professors Michael Yudkin and Denis Noble — both members of the UCU for more than 40 years – wrote that “any academic boycott would violate a core principle that has been accepted in the profession for nearly a century — that academics do not discriminate against colleagues on grounds of race, sex, religion, national or ethnic origin, or other personal characteristics.”
Then they turned to Julius, who wrote Hunt a detailed letter characterizing the union’s motion as a boycott — and as anti-Semitic. The motion comprises “the opening stages of a campaign of boycott,” Julius wrote. “It would be dishonest to suggest otherwise.”
Proposed boycotts of Jews have “been a staple of anti-Semitic programs for at least 800 years,” he wrote. “Indeed, the history of anti-Semitism is in substantial part the history of boycotts of Jews.”
Julius threatened that if the motion was not “rescinded or otherwise treated as defunct by the national executive committee, litigation may well follow.”
The attorney, who gained renown for representing the late Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles and successfully defending Deborah Lipstadt against a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving, also threatened to pursue other incidents involving Jewish union members, including the union’s “failure to respond adequately to the steady stream of resignations by Jewish union members from the union.”
Last week, the UCU’s director of legal services, Michael Scott, wrote to Julius that the revised motion did not include a call to boycott Israel. Instead the union will issue guidelines to branches about twinning with universities in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as Zimbabwe and Burma, and commissioning an independent report on academic freedom.
Julius said he accepted the revised motion as a repudiation of the boycott threat but warned that he would sue “in the event of a fresh boycott, or otherwise unlawfully discriminatory motion.”
For several years, a small but ardent group of UCU members, with the backing and support of the Socialist Workers, a small Trotskyite party, have promoted the call by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to boycott Israel.
The UCU is one of the largest trade unions in Britain, a result of the merger of two university unions. Before the merger, the same coalition of individuals managed to pass motions in both unions calling for boycotting Israeli academics and/or their institutions.
Onc such a motion was struck down after union branches at the various universities voted overwhelmingly against it. On the advice of legal counsel, the other motion was not implemented once the merger took place.
Earlier this decade, thousand of academics from around the world, including many in the United States, signed a call led by Alan Dershowitz and a group of Nobel Prize winners to be considered as Israelis when it came to implementing a boycott against Israelis.