Vice-chancellors oppose academic boycott of Israel

Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, has issued a statement restating its opposition to an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

In a statement posted on its website on 3 June, the organisation, said: “The board of Universities UK is committed to the free exchange of ideas between universities and between academics, regardless of nationality or location.

“The board therefore firmly opposes academic boycotts on the basis that they are inimical to academic freedom, including the freedom of academics to collaborate with other academics.”

The organisation said it was necessary to confirm its previously stated view due to the “reported perception in Israel” that UK universities support an academic boycott.

“The board of Universities UK wishes to confirm its previously stated position that it is firmly opposed to any academic boycott of Israeli universities,” the statement said.

“The board also confirms its view that all universities must uphold, in the interests of free expression of ideas, the fundamental right of academics to question national and international policies.”

National Union of Students’ motion

The statement follows a ‘Solidarity with Palestine’ motion passed by the National Union of Students’ national executive committee on 2 June. It supports a ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’, or BDS, campaign called for by 170 Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005 to pressure Israel into “complying with international law”.

The motion refers to the “ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine” and “Israel’s multitude of human rights and international law violations”, and the death of more than 2,000 civilians and injury of 10,000 others during the 2014 Israeli military operation in Gaza.

It also says that the Israeli military has “directly attacked the right to education in Gaza”, and alleges that “UN schools and the Islamic University of Gaza were among the infrastructure Israel targeted during its assault on Gaza”.

The motion says that the tactic of global boycotts “effectively assisted the successful struggle against South African apartheid” and that international solidarity “should be conducted on the terms set by the Palestinian people”, referring to the BDS campaign.

The National Union of Students, or NUS, resolved to affiliate to the BDS movement and disseminate resources and materials on “how to run successful BDS campaigns on campus”.

However, the vote was publicly opposed by some leading NUS members. Joe Vinson, the NUS’s vice-president (further education), tweeted: “Anti-semitism is like a virus, it mutates and infects everything it touches. It’s mutated into BDS and NUS is infected.”

The Union of Jewish Students condemned the NUS vote and complained that action by BDS campaigners shows them to be “toxic forces” on campuses and in society.

“Just look at Durban University of Technology, where they called for the expulsion of Jewish students, especially those who do not support the Palestinian struggle,” it said in a statement on its website.

“This motion passing divides student groups, undermines interfaith relations and suffocates progressive voices for peace on both sides. It is disturbing that supposed representatives of students throughout the UK have joined a movement that at the core is not progressive or constructive in supporting two states for two peoples.”

University and College Union stance

The student vote followed a vote by the University and College Union at their annual congress in Glasgow on 23-24 May in which a motion was passed noting the adoption by congress in 2009 and 2010 of a “general pro-boycott policy directed at Israeli products and institutions, including academic institutions”.

Delegates voted to send an email to University and College Union members individually reminding them of “policy on Israel”. However, the motion was declared null and void in the light of legal advice taken by the union.

A spokesperson for the University and College Union told University World News that the union had previously followed advice from Leading Counsel that it would be unlawful and beyond the powers of the union to call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

In addition, the union was advised that there would be a serious risk that circulation of the email called for in the motion would be characterised by a court as amounting in substance to a call by the union for such a boycott.