by Matthew Taylor, Suzanne Goldenberg and Rory McCarthy | The Guardian | 9 June 2007
British academics' desire to boycott Israeli universities this week provoked the threat of legal action and counter-boycotts. Will it produce a fully-fledged international crisis?
As the pop group Girls Aloud ran through a sound check on the other side of the curtain, lecturers in the main hall at the Bournemouth International Centre tried to block out the music and concentrate on the matter in hand. In front of them was a motion calling for a nationwide debate on a proposed academic boycott of Israeli universities in protest at the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories.
As the discussions rumbled on, most of those in the hall for the University and College Union's (UCU) first annual conference on May 30 realised their decision would have ramifications beyond British academia. Few, however, could have predicted the scale of the backlash when the resolution, which called on the UCU to circulate a boycott request by Palestinian trade unions to all branches for "information and discussion", was passed by 158 votes to 99.
Within hours it was headline news in Britain and Israel, within days it was making waves in Europe and north America, and soon every newspaper from the Kansas City Star ("A stain on British academia") to the Turkish Daily News ("Israel discusses retaliation to boycott threats") was in on the act.
Tony Blair phoned the Israeli prime minister to reassure him that the motion did not reflect wider public opinion. In Israel, MPs began drafting a bill to label British imports - allowing consumers to stage their own counter boycott.
But in the two weeks since the vote, it is the US that has had the biggest surge of activity among the anti-boycott camp. About 2,000 American scholars - including at least nine Nobel laureates - have vowed to stay away from any event from which Israelis are excluded. A Democrat from suburban Philadelphia, Patrick Murphy, has moved a resolution in the House of Representatives, condemning the vote and calling on members of the UCU to reject the boycott. Thirty other members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors.
Alan Dershowitz, the prominent lawyer and Harvard law professor, says he has mustered a team of 100 high-profile lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic to "devastate and bankrupt" anyone acting against Israeli universities.
"If the union goes ahead with this immoral petition, it will destroy British academia," Dershowitz told the Guardian last night. "We will isolate them from the rest of the world. They will end up being the objects of the boycott because we will get tens of thousands of the most prominent academics from around the world to refuse to cooperate and refuse to participate in any events from which Israeli academics are excluded. It will totally backfire."
As the global ramifications of the vote became clear yesterday, the leaders of the newly formed UCU met in central London to discuss their next move.
Union officials are unsure about what the vote will mean in practice, but president Sally Hunt is still clinging to the hope that, when push comes to shove, most members will vote against an academic boycott. "As I said at our congress, I simply do not believe that the majority of UCU members support an academic boycott of Israel or that they believe it should be a major priority for the union," she said. "When I speak to members, they tell me they want their union to focus on pay and conditions."
One option for the fledgling leadership would be to test that theory and ballot all UCU members - although it is thought that the rolling process of meetings and campaigns approved by conference would still have to take place.
Hunt said: "Now a boycott is to be discussed by UCU members, I hope all will genuinely get to have their say on the issue. I still believe that the best way to do that, and to ensure the full membership's views are properly reflected, is through a ballot of all members."
In 2005 the UCU's predecessor union, the Association of University Teachers, passed a motion calling for sanctions against Israeli institutions only for it to be overturned at an emergency general meeting a few weeks later. This time the row is likely to rumble on and surrounds a carefully worded motion that calls on the union to circulate a boycott request to all branches for "information and discussion" rather than a boycott. But for some in the anti-boycott camp these are "weasel-words" aimed at avoiding legal censure. Prominent UK lawyer and visiting professor at Birkbeck College, London, Anthony Julius, said: "Going for a boycott is gesture politics in the first place but a resolution that comes close but avoids actually spelling it out is a gesture wrapped up in a gesture - it's nothing more than a bad smell."
However, many within the UCU object to the ferocity of the backlash. James Sanderson, who was attending his first union conference in Bournemouth, said the motion gave UK academics the time and space to consider the merits of a boycott. "This motion was not as quoted in the press as a direct attack on Israeli academics but merely an opportunity for everyone in this new union to fully participate in a frank and open debate on how we can support our comrades in the Middle East."
Sue Blackwell, who spoke in favour of the motion, said it was outrageous that a democratic vote to discuss a boycott had provoked such a virulent response. "The fact that so many people outside the union do not like the idea of a us taking a democratic decision to have a debate about this issue is quite incredible," she said. "We have voted to discuss how best to help our Palestinian brothers and sisters who often are not allowed to get to college or university and that is what we will do whatever the threats and intimidation that come our way."
In the US, moves to censure Israel by students on American campuses have been met with much stronger, well-organised opposition. Campaigns for universities to divest from firms that sell arms and equipment to the Israeli army have been strenuously resisted. Only one governing body - at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville - has issued such a call. "The political climate here is a lot different than Britain. It's difficult in the States even to get a discussion going about boycotts," said Mohammed Abed, a philosophy student who was active in the divestment campaign.
Many in the anti-boycott camp see the UCU's stance as part of a wider trend of attacks on Israel, pointing to recent boycott proposals from the NUJ, Unison and some British doctors. Julius said Israel was being treated as "uniquely evil" in a way he said was reminiscent of the anti-semitism of the medieval Christian church. "I sometimes think that Jews born in the 1940s and 1950s have been living through a golden period but that the closed season on Jews has now come to an end." He is drawing up a paper with Dershowitz outlining what he claims are the moral weaknesses of the boycott proposal and explaining how it would infringe on academic freedom.
Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics at the University of Texas, who cancelled a visit to the UK after NUJ boycott calls this year, told the Guardian the UCU stance was anti-semitic. "I am not saying that every criticism of the state of Israel is necessarily anti-semitic, but this kind of moral condemnation is, it seems to me, when there is nothing to condemn."
But this argument is dismissed by supporters. "It is offensive and is beginning to wear very thin indeed," said Blackwell. "This is explicitly a debate about the policies of the Israeli government and role of Israeli universities and the fact that many Jewish people in this country support a boycott shows that it has nothing to do with anti-semitism."
In Israel, the UCU's position has triggered a wave of criticism. Some have threatened a retaliatory boycott of British products and union workers have said they may refuse to unload British imports. Many have repeated the accusation that there is a seam of anti-semitism just below the surface of the boycott debate. "Boycotting a product because it's made in Israel resembles, in my opinion, hanging a sign on the store that reads 'Jew'," Otniel Schneller, the Kadima MP who has proposed the bill, told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper this week. "The fact that we tend to take it and to apologise weakens us."
Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, will travel to Israel tomorrow to meet Israeli ministers and the heads of several Israeli universities to discuss the boycott. He has already said he was "very disappointed" at the UCU vote.
Israel's leading trade union federation, Histadrut, is hoping to send delegates to the Unison conference this month. "We believe in solidarity and in dialogue and not in a one-sided attitude," said Avital Shapiro-Shabirow, director of international activity for Histadrut.
Among some Palestinians the view is different. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel says boycotts are legitimate efforts to end the occupation. Pro-boycott Palestinian academics are expected to tour UK universities in coming months.
However, the feeling among Israeli peace activists is mixed. Uri Avnery, a veteran activist and founding member of the Gush Shalom peace movement, said a campaign against organisations or firms that contribute to the occupation might better help change public opinion. "[A general boycott] drives people in Israel into the hands of rightwing demagogues and stigmatises everybody. The question is: do you believe Israel can be changed from the inside or not? I believe it can and must be changed from inside. I don't believe any pressure from the outside, except perhaps from the White House and the US Congress, can change Israeli policy."
Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, started the boycott campaign with a letter to the Guardian in 2002 arguing for a moratorium on European funding of Israeli research.
However, it was not until 2005 that the Association of University Teachers - the predecessor to the University and College Union - voted to cut links with Haifa and Bar Ilan universities, which it claimed were complicit in the abuse of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The decision provoked an angry international response, with AUT members opposed to the vote mobilising support in Europe, the US and the Middle East. A few weeks after the initial vote, the union held an emergency meeting at which the boycott was overturned.
Last year the issue was overshadowed by the merger of the UK's two big academic unions - the AUT and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education - to form the UCU. But at the union's first conference last month, members put an academic boycott back at the top of the agenda.