Israel: Threatened university boycott abandoned

In a turn-about decision following heavy international legal pressure, Britain’s
University and College Union (UCU) has called off a threatened controversial boycott of Israel’s higher education institutions.

But the union is still examining other sanctions, including a suspension of joint Israel-British research projects. The UCU was reportedly advised the boycott was not legal and, therefore, could not be implemented.

The decision was welcomed by members of Bar-Ilan University’s International Advisory Board (IAB) for Academic Freedom, a group established in 2005 to coordinate the campaign against the international academic boycott of Israel.

Its members believe, as Dr Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, had already stated provocatively at IAB’s first conference, that an international academic boycott of Israel, on pro-Palestinian grounds, would be self-defeating.

“It would only succeed in weakening that strategically important bridge through which the state of war between Israelis and Palestinians could be ended, and Palestinian rights could therefore be restored,” Nusseibeh said.

Dr Jonathan Rynhold, a senior lecturer in political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a member of the IAB’s delegation to Britain, said the boycott was a form of prejudice and discrimination because it unfairly singled out Israel and demonised the state.

But Dr Amjad Barham, president of the Federation of Union of Palestinian Universities' Professors and Employees, expressed his dismay on hearing of the decision.

In an open letter to Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, Barham said: “The best form of solidarity with Palestinians, whether they are academics or ordinary people, is direct action aimed at bringing an end to the occupation and the regime of apartheid in Palestine.

“Isolating Israel in the international arena through various forms of boycott and sanctions and forcing it to obey international law and respect Palestinian rights is one of the strategies open to international civil society, including members of the academy.”

The unofficial call for an academic boycott of Israel began in 2002 when Mona Baker, the Egyptian-born owner of the St Jerome publishing house in Manchester and a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, sacked two Israeli academics from the boards of two of its journals in protest against Israel's actions in the West Bank.

In 2003, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFE) called for British universities to sever all ties with Israeli academic institutions, although this motion was defeated.

Two years later the 40,000-strong Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to boycott Haifa and Bar Ilan Universities. Bar-Ian University was accused of being "directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories" because it supervised degree programmes at a satellite college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

Haifa University was accused in a separate motion of failing to uphold the academic freedom of staff and students who "seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel".

The national association then decided to boycott all Israeli academics who did not “publicly disassociate themselves from Israeli policies” – two days before the union merged with the AUT, forming the current UCU, and thereby nullifying the resolution.

The latest decision is seen in Israel as the end of official calls by large British unions for an academic boycott, although a spokesperson of the IAB said they still expected ‘guerrilla’ activity and would continue to send students and academics to campuses in Britain to try and encourage scientific cooperation between the two countries.