Britain’s largest academic union decided this week not to go ahead with discussions about potentially boycotting Israeli universities.
Last May, the country’s University and College Union voted to open up discussions about the “moral implications” of ties with Israeli institutions in light of the “denial of educational rights” to Palestinians. Last week, the union’s legal council advised that even the discussions could violate British discrimination law.
“The union has been told that while UCU is at liberty to debate the pros and cons of Israeli policies, it cannot spend members’ resources on seeking to test opinion on something which is in itself unlawful and cannot be implemented,” a statement from the union said.
Over the past few months, the boycott proposal has met vocal protest from around the world.
At the time of the May vote, Britain’s minister of state education, Bill Rammell, said that “the U.K. government fully supports academic freedom and is firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics.”
Even within the UCU, support for a boycott was hardly universal. The original boycott motion passed by a vote of 158-99. At the time of the vote, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said, “I do not believe a boycott is supported by the majority of UCU members.”
The news of the change was cheered by Jewish groups and criticized by the union of Palestinian academics.
“We cannot understand why the door to open consideration of controversial ideas has been so abruptly closed,” the head of the Palestinian university union, Amjad Barham, wrote to Hunt.
The turnaround by UCU is the latest victory for pro-Israel activists in Britain. The Association of Union Teachers passed a boycott motion in 2005, but it was overturned at a special council of the union following an international outcry. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and the National Union of Journalists also scrapped motions to boycott Israeli goods.
“We will continue to win the intellectual argument, showing why any boycott of Israel is unbalanced, unfair and ignores the difficult complexities of the Middle East,” said Lorna Fitzsimons, chairwoman of the Stop the Boycott Campaign.
Still, it is not clear that the legal decision this week will end the union’s involvement with the Middle East peace process. After last week’s determination, the union said it would continue to “explore the best ways to implement the non-boycott elements of the motion passed at Congress.”
Union staff said the “non-boycott elements” of the resolution refer to efforts to “actively encourage and support branches to create direct links with Palestinian educational institutions and to help set up nationally sponsored programs for teacher exchanges, sabbatical placements and research.”