by Will Woodward | The Guardian | 10 May 2003
Union votes for maintaining links to support progressive academics
The largest university lecturers' union last night voted by a majority of about 2-1 to reject a call for an academic boycott of Israel, saying such a ban would harm progressive Israeli academics campaigning against the Sharon government.
In an intense but not acrimonious debate at its annual conference, the Association of University Teachers backed its executive on the grounds also that a boycott would dilute the impact of its support for an independent Palestinian state.
The motion, proposed by Sue Blackwell, a lecturer in the English department at Birmingham University, urged AUT members to sever academic links with Israeli institutions and funding agencies, to boycott conferences in Israel, and refuse to participate as referees in hiring or promotions by the country's universities.
Speaking at the conference in Scarborough, Ms Blackwell said AUT support for the boycott, launched last year by the British academics Steven and Hilary Rose, would "add to the pressure on the country's economy and dent its international prestige".
She said: "There are those who would argue that academia and politics should be kept apart. But Palestinian students and staff do not have that luxury. They suffer constant harassment, road blocks, curfews and closures which make academic life all but impossible."
In a few years' time, she told the 200 delegates at the Spa complex, boycotts could take place against UK universities if British troops were still occupying Iraq. "The difference with the Israeli electorate is that they have, sadly, just re-elected their own war criminal - Ariel Sharon. This places a moral responsibility on the rest of the world to take whatever legal and peaceful action they can."
Alan Waton, from Bradford University, for the executive, said the boycott would not be effective against the Israeli state. "Israeli universities are largely funded by the state but they are not organised by the state ... we should work as closely as possible with those progressive forces both in Israel and in Palestine to hasten the day when we have two independent free states."
Simon Renton, from University College London, said a boycott would be "intolerant, arrogant, imperialist behaviour" because, unlike the boycott of South Africa during the apartheid regime, it had not been asked for by campaigners within the country.
He said: "The discussion and the debate and the rancour that the passage of this motion will produce in our associations will dilute any number of useful contributions, not only for this year but for years to come.
"This is a model of self-harm which we ought not to be following. Why should we cut each other's throats over this issue when everybody else ... cares very, very strongly about what our view is?"
The conference passed a series of motions committing the union to affiliating to the Trade Union Friends of Palestine group, to establishing links with Palestinian universities, and to campaigning for UK institutions to twin with Palestinian institutions.
The delegates also deplored the "witch hunting" of academics participating in the boycott, and pledged to give "all possible support to members of AUT unjustly accused of anti-semitism because of their political opposition to Israeli government policy".
Ms Blackwell said she had received hate-mail after signing up to the boycott. And one linguistics professor - Mona Baker, at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology - had attracted worldwide controversy when she sacked two academics from the boards of her privately owned journals because they worked at Israeli universities.
Gargi Bhattacharya, an executive member from Birmingham, said she opposed the boycott as it was important to support both Palestinian and Israeli academics in readiness for an independent Palestine.