University lecturers around the country are promoting a boycott of Israeli universities in protest against the “40-year occupation” of Palestinian land, which they argue is supported by academics in Israel.
The motion, upheld at the first conference of the University and College Union (UCU) in Bournemouth, said that there should be “a comprehensive and consistent boycott” of all Israeli academic institutions. The result of the vote was 158 to 99 in support of the motion.
Brighton University academic and member of the national union, Tom Hickey said, “There will be adverse effects on individuals, but this is not targeting individuals or trying to break contacts with them.”
The boycott would entail lecturers refusing to join forces with Israeli academics on research contracts, as well as refusing to work with journals that are published by Israeli companies.
The general secretary of the union Sally Hunt said, “I do not believe a boycott is supported by a majority of (the 120,000) UCU members; nor do I believe that members see it as a priority for the union.” She added that the majority of the members wished to retain dialogue with trade unionists on all sides “not just those we agree with”.
Rabbi Treblow, the Jewish student’s chaplain for Yorkshire and Humberside stated that he was troubled with the idea of an academic boycott, as it undermines the role of a university as a place to have free and open discussion. He said, “the majority of Israeli academics are of the same political persuasion as those carrying out the boycott, it’s counter productive, they are singling out people by their nationality and not their policies and beliefs.”
There has been an outcry from Jewish groups and activists who feel that the boycott is an attack on academic freedom and undermines the credibility of British academics as a whole, even if the vast majority does not support the boycott.
Mitch Simmons from the Union of Jewish Students added to this stating, “Academic freedom is part of the fabric of modern society. The exchange of information and the advancement of human knowledge should have no borders. Disappointingly, it seems that no value can be left unviolated by the proposers of this motion.”
On the same day as the vote, four Israeli university presidents and several top authors wrote to the Israeli government asking to lift the current restrictions placed on Palestinian students, preventing those that live in Gaza from studying in the West Bank. “Blocking access to higher education for Palestinian students from Gaza who choose to study in the West Bank casts a dark shadow over Israel’s image as a state which respects and supports the principle of academic freedom and the right to education,” the letter said.
This was followed by calls to the military to listen to the intellectuals and the Israeli academy who wished for the universal principle of academic freedom be respected.
The Israel-Palestine issue has a history of sparking controversy at previous conferences of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and the Association of University Teachers (AUT), which merged last year to form the UCU.
In 2005 an AUT boycott caused much debate and was promptly discarded. NAFTHE also supported boycotts in the past.