6 September 2007
It’s that time of year again at the start of a new academic year when we have high hopes for the future and we can make a fresh start with a new group of students. Nothing however has changed with regard to the campaign for an academic boycott of Israel. It’s as before, the UCU are continuing with their plans to keep the boycott a live topic by spending the next two months discussing the boycott at local level on campus, followed bythe report and recommendations to the UCU executive at the end of November and finally it’s conference time again at the end of the academic year when the whole issue will be discussed again.
To remind you resolution 30 passed at conference obliges the UCU to circulate the Palestinian boycott call to all its local branches, support a speaking tour by Palestinian academics presumably supporting a boycott, encourage its members to “consider the moral implications of links with Israeli academic institutions” and campaign for a “moratorium on research and cultural collaborations with Israel via EU and European Science Foundation funding”.The UCU recently issued a circular for branches on the circulation and debate of a call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. It can be found at http://www.ucu.org.uk/circ/html/ucu34.html
The main points of the document are:
1. The provisional timetable for the regional meetings is for them to begin on 15 October with meetings in Southampton (15th), Cardiff (16th), Birmingham (17th), London (18th), Manchester (22nd) and Glasgow (23rd). Venues and times will be advised in early September. Admission will be by ticket only.
2. The regional events will be debates only and no resolutions will be put to the meetings.
3. Branches are encouraged to seek members’ views directly by holding meetings to approve resolution 30. They are strongly advised to use resolution 30 as the basis for discussion at the meeting and must submit a report of their deliberations to the General Secretary by 16 November.
4. To ensure as many members as possible participate in the debates and to make their individual views known to the NEC. They can email their views on resolution 30 to the General Secretary, Sally Hunt directly on [email protected] who will place them before the Executive. So far she has received 800 individual responses from members to resolution 30.
5. The UCU website will be have a page containing information which can be circulated to members to encourage a fair and even handed debate.
The one point that comes over very strongly in the circular is that the union is trying to consult with as many members as possible to ensure that it is not liable for legal action of any sort especially as the circular states “Our legal advice is that the subject matter of resolution 30 touches upon a number of areas where there is potential for unlawful discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and belief.”
I have heard that the union has so far spent several hundred thousand pounds on legal advice and the total cost to the union for the consultation procedure could be a lot more, so from their point of view they are trying to make sure they get it right.
The question that needs answering is; can the UCU legally call for a boycott of Israeli universities? In 2003 Professor Wilkie discriminated against an Israeli academic who wanted to work for him in his Oxford Laboratory. He broke his University’s discrimination and equal opportunities rules and even possibly his contract of employment. If the UCU encourages its members to boycott Israeli Universities will it be liable? Only the UCU knows the answers and they are not telling anyone yet.
By trying to involve as many of its 120,000 members as possible in the consultation process the UCU appears to have outmanoeuvred The Stop the Boycott group’s call for a ballot of members on the issue. The UCU are now saying a vote will be taken at local branch meetings. So, the well-meaning Stop the Boycotters will have to be prepared to go out to local meetings on a damp foggy November evening and wait while the SWP members are hunkered down in their anoraks and flasks of coffee and be prepared to wait till 2am to vote.
Even though the regional debates are less than 6 weeks away, the UCU has not yet asked either the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB) or the Coordinating Council of Israeli University Faculty Associations (the Israeli equivalent of the UCU) to provide speakers. It is of course not certain that even if the Israelis were asked they would want to take part.
What many people overlook is that the UCU itself has adopted polices that are pro- Palestinian. It may not think of itself as anti-Israeli but it is certainly pro-Palestinian. Earlier this year it held a meeting with its partner organisations such as the Palestinian Solidarity campaign and produced a plan for UCU support of academics in Palestine. Both its predecessor Unions, the AUT and NATFHE have a history of links with the Palestinians dating back over the last 20 years. NATHFE has had links with Bir Zeit University for 15 years and the AUT sent delegations to the occupied territories in the 1980s. The combination of a permanent staff supportive of the Palestinians and 50% of the National Executive committee who are on the far Left means it is likely that the UCU will continue with policies calling for a boycott Israel for many years to come.
Will the membership take part? One has to remember that on the 100 UK University campuses there should be a reasonable response as any boycott call will directly affect university academics. However in 2005 at the height of the AUT boycott, the average attendance at many of the local meetings to discuss the issue was less than 50 members. The remaining UCU members at the 600 Colleges of Further Education throughout Britain are not directly affected by any boycott as they have no direct contact with Israeli Universities and academic freedom is not an issue for them. It is therefore anyone’s guess as to how they will vote, if at all. Recent polls suggest that 15-20% of the UCU membership if they vote they will be in favour of boycotting Israel so in order to win the local consultation process we have to win with a big majority which has nothing to do with any national campaign.
We must encourage as many UCU members as possible to register their views on resolution 30 with Sally Hunt as well as taking part in any local consultation process. Please let us know what is happening on your campus. It appears this procedure will allow members to register their views twice, which will query the fairness of the whole consultation process. The question is how much weight in the report to the NEC will be put on the success of the regional meetings, individual members’ responses and local meetings. How do you measure if a regional meeting is supportive of a boycott or otherwise if there isn’t a vote at the end of proceedings?
Taking everything into consideration it seems unlikely that by this time next year the boycott issue will have been defeated and gone away.