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Polly Curtis & Matthew Taylor | The Guardian | 24 May 2005
It started with a vote at an academic union conference and escalated into an issue that inflamed passions around the globe. This week the boycott of two Israeli universities is to be reconsidered. Which way will it go? Report by Polly Curtis and Matthew Taylor
There are issues about which academics argue, then there are things the rest of the world discusses. But rarely does a row that started among lecturers at a seaside conference end up on front pages around the world.
The academic boycott of two Israeli universities, which was decided by 200 members of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) on a sunny day in Eastbourne last month, has made that leap. The next day it hit the front pages of British and Israeli newspapers. America picked up on the story, then Canada and Germany; everyone from the New York Sun to the Statesman in India has had their say.
Since then, the world has refused to forget the AUT's decision and so have its own members. A grassroots rebellion has forced a re-examination of the issue, and on Thursday the membership will meet again, this time in central London, for round two.
Soundings suggest the momentum is moving with those opposed to a boycott but activists on all sides are far too nervous to hazard a guess. The jitters from within the AUT executive are palpable. The union's international reputation is riding on the result.
But Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, who started the ball rolling with a letter to the Guardian three years ago arguing for a moratorium on European funding of Israeli research, says that whatever this week's outcome, the pro-boycott lobby has changed the parameters of the debate.
"It started with just a letter and it's moved considerably since then. I happened to be in Sweden talking to a non-academic who had read about it. It has had astonishing resonance around the world and, whatever happens now, the issue is alive and is not going to go away."
How the boycott became official AUT policy at the Eastbourne conference will become the stuff of legend. Sue Blackwell, the Birmingham academic and primary mover behind the boycott, dressed in the Palestinian flag's colours, delivered an impassioned speech and ran rings round the union executive's attempts to postpone the debate. The membership rebelled and voted to boycott Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities because of their alleged complicity in the Israeli government's policies in the occupied territories.
But like all good legends, some of the detail has already been lost. And like all legends concerning the sensitive and polarised world of Israeli-Palestinian politics, the debate about whether to boycott the universities is now shrouded in a thick cloud of claim and counter-claim.
Almost daily in the five weeks since the Eastbourne conference, there has been a development of some sort in the story. The two universities have set out their stalls: Haifa has threatened legal action against the AUT, disputing the allegation that it sought to silence academics critical of Israel.
The AUT motion referred to the case of Ilan Pappe, a senior lecturer at Haifa, who clashed with the university authorities when he defended a controversial research paper by a student, Teddy Katz, alleging that Israeli soldiers had massacred Arabs in Tantur in 1948. Writing for Education Guardian today, Pappe says the AUT "will be remembered in history very much alongside those British and European NGOs whose bold and honourable stand against apartheid in South Africa will always be engraved in our collective memory".
But Ada Spitzer, vice-president of the University of Haifa, says her institution was "awarded this crown of thorns" by the AUT "precisely because we represent the most positive aspects of Israeli society. Our accomplishments in Jewish-Arab reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue are anathema to a small group of well-organised campaigners who seek to delegitimise the state of Israel through the vilification of its success stories."
Meanwhile, the Israeli government has granted university status to the College of Judea and Samaria, in the disputed settlement of Ariel. It was Bar-Ilan's links with this college that were cited in the argument to boycott it.
Bar-Ilan has set up its own advisory board for academic freedom, which took out an advert in the Guardian last Friday blaming the boycott on a "small extremist group" within the AUT. In a sign of the depth of feeling that has been stirred, the advert compared the boycott with the persecution of academics in Germany in the lead-up to the second world war.
The British government has been nervous of commenting. Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, told Education Guardian last week: "In general, I'm not in favour of academic boycotts." But she wouldn't go any further. And the minister for the Middle East, Kim Howells, who was higher education minister until the election, welcomed the plans to reconsider the boycott, adding in a very carefully worded statement: "The British government fully supports academic freedom and appreciates the independence of the AUT.
"But as a friend of both Israel and the Palestinians, we believe that we can best encourage both sides to take the steps needed for progress through close engagement to achieve a peaceful resolution."
There have been furious rows over the legal status of the boycott. Experts in international law have argued it would break Unesco agreements and British university bosses have said it would contravene anti-discrimination laws and the university's own contracts.
It has emerged that six AUT members have sought legal advice, claiming the union does not have the right to issue a boycott motion. Solicitors acting on behalf of the lecturers have written to Sally Hunt, the AUT's general secretary, warning that the union could be dragged through the courts unless it backs down.
They claim that the rules governing unions, and the AUT's own statutes, dictate that any political action taken by the union can relate only to the EU or Britain, and the union is therefore overstepping its own rules by involving itself in another country's affairs. "The boycott resolutions are not within the objects of the AUT," it concludes.
Meanwhile, both the pro and anti-boycott camps have sought to beef up their support. The American Association of University Professors condemned the boycott, as did the American Political Science Association, as hundreds of Palestinian academics, NGOs and unions signed a petition in favour.
A petition condemning the boycott signed by Nobel prize-winning academics from the UK, Europe, the US and the Middle East will be delivered to the AUT ahead of Thursday's meeting. A separate petition arguing in favour of the boycott is signed by hundreds of prominent South African academics, many of whom were themselves boycotted during the apartheid era.
An online petition against the boycott gathered 40,000 signatures before being taken down and started again after complaints that names of pro-boycott academics were being added without their permission. And at the end of last week, the Hebrew University and Palestinian Al-Quds University signed a joint statement in London calling for academic cooperation.
Perhaps the most damaging allegation for the AUT has been how the debate in Eastbourne was conducted. Even supporters of the boycott admit it was "fumbled". The morning session was running out of time and the debate was cut short. Blackwell and a second proposer spoke in favour of the boycott. The executive argued the vote should be postponed, but nobody spoke against the motion before a vote was taken. And there were complaints from the Jewish lobby that the scheduling, on the Sabbath, albeit in the morning, and a day before the beginning of the annual festival of Passover, prevented Jewish members and lobbyists attending.
The accusations have added to the sense that the AUT has been severely damaged by the row. John Levy, chair of the Academic Study Group, which promotes cooperation between academics in Israel and the UK, says: "The AUT's credibility as a union has been badly damaged at home and around the world. I think the executive has been most incautious to allow this debate to go forward without clearly signalling its reservations.
"All over the world there are people bouncing with anger, which in some cases is being expressed in a very crude way against British academics and academia in general. This is undoubtedly having an impact on our international networks. Last week, a scientist came back from the States saying what a drubbing he had received from colleagues. People are furious and shamed by what the AUT has done."
In a desperate damage limitation exercise, the AUT executive has undertaken meticulous planning to ensure that there is a fair and frank debate on Thursday. But it is doing so out of the public eye; it is has barred the press from the meeting on the advice of its lawyers.
In a statement issued on Friday, it said: "The AUT has taken legal advice on matters in relation to the meeting of its special council of May 26. Arising from that, AUT's national executive decided yesterday that the special council should be a closed session and therefore open to members only."
It is making no further comments on the matter until the result of the council vote is announced on Thursday.
According to union rules, the boycott motion will stand until the union passes a new policy that changes it. So local associations of the AUT in universities across the country suggested 32 motions by the deadline last Friday. Yesterday was the deadline for adding amendments to them and the final list will be made available to AUT members ahead of Thursday but, again on lawyers' advice, not to the press.
However, Education Guardian had seen the unamended list of all 32 motions proposed by Friday. They give the first impression of whether the boycott will stand or fall. Twenty-four call for the boycott to be dropped. Two call for a full ballot of the AUT membership to decide the issue. Two argue that just the College of Judea and Samaria, because it is in disputed territories, should be boycotted. Two argue for a policy that opposes the Israeli government's actions. And two more call for the idea of a boycott to be accepted, though do not mandate members to enact one.
The motions also betray high tensions surrounding the boycott. The Open University branch's motion refers to the "widespread international hostility" to the boycott as well as the "legal jeopardy" in which it places the AUT on the basis of free academic exchange, employment law, human rights law and anti-discrimination legislation.
The Reading branch's reads: "Whereas resolutions on boycotting specific Israeli universities were passed by council in circumstances which precluded due investigation, consideration and debate; whereas they offend against the fundamental principles of academic freedom to which the membership subscribes; and whereas their effect has been to damage the AUT, bringing it into disrepute both nationally and internationally, those resolutions are now overturned by council with immediate effect."
But behind every one of those motions is a story. Jon Pike, the Open University philosopher who led the campaign for the special conference, says: "In every branch where there has been a full meeting of the membership, the boycott of Bar-Ilan and Haifa has been opposed.
"In some branches AUT officers have resisted members' calls for a full meeting and some council members are still resisting calls to ensure that they represent fully the views of their members. So although the views of the membership are very clear, the vote at the special council could still be close."
Last week, local AUT meetings, which sometimes struggle to attract a dozen members, were packed with academics eager to ensure their voices were heard. More than 150 people crowded into the meeting hall at University College London. At Open, Sussex and Birmingham universities, which were behind the boycott calls last month, large numbers turned up, and similar scenes were witnessed at Oxford and King's College London.
Things got so heated at Sussex that some pro-boycott members are threatening legal action against their local association, claiming that it broke its own rules, ending with an anti-boycott motion.
Steve Brown, from Birmingham, was at the university's AUT meeting last week. Despite it being the motor behind the original boycott, last week one motion was passed in favour of the boycott and one against. "The original process was hijacked by a pro-Palestinian lobby but on this occasion we have got a much more balanced situation, which should lead to a more balanced debate. There were more people at this debate than at the previous meeting and clearly I hope we will manage to overturn the decision. The last debate was held on the eve of Passover so many Jewish delegates could not make it. This time their voices will be heard."
Some lecturers have even rushed to rejoin the AUT in order to have a say in the debate. But the reinvigoration of the union's grassroots has raised eyebrows in some quarters.
Blackwell says: "A lot of people who don't turn up to debates about pay and conditions turned up to this. There was an anti-boycott lobby present."
The row on many campuses is being portrayed as one between activists and the union's wider membership, many of whom are turning up to meetings for the first time. Some believe the vote is too close to call because delegates can vote as they wish rather than being tied to any mandate.
"There are some branches that have attempted to mandate their delegates," says Rose. "But delegates cannot be mandated. They should respect the wishes at the branch meetings, but they cannot be mandated and that has been confirmed by the AUT agenda people."
Blackwell admits that she believes a postal vote of membership would result in the boycott being rescinded, but argues vociferously that part of that would be because of misinformation in the media surrounding their arguments. She won't speculate on Thursday's outcome.
A spokesman for the Campaign Group for Academic Freedom agreed the picture was still "very, very confused". He said: "There is no question that there is momentum building against the boycott within AUT grassroots, but whether that will translate into a positive decision on Thursday is still not at all clear."
But Rose and the supporters of the boycott believe there are more important issues at stake than the AUT's reputation. "The boycott is part of an instrument that can be used and should be used selectively by civil society. It's appropriate in some circumstances and not in others," he says. "Israel's actions are severe enough to warrant it."
Professor Lynne Segal, of the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace International, says it is likely the boycott motion will be overturned. But she says she hopes the debate has raised the profile of the daily injustices suffered by Palestinians.
"This debate has concentrated on the academic freedom of Israelis, but we should focus on what is happening every day to Palestinian academics and students who are routinely prevented from carrying out their studies.
"The AUT should oppose in the strongest terms the ongoing interference in Palestinian universities and work to build strong links with Palestinian higher education and all other areas of civil society. That is what I hope to see, but my fear is that the boycott defeat will be seen as a victory for those who oppose any criticism of Israeli policies."
And Blackwell says whatever the outcome of Thursday's debate, the pro-boycott lobby has achieved more than it ever dreamed. "I wasn't certain that we would pass any of the three motions and I was overjoyed that we did. We've done better than we've ever expected. We've had an international debate and prompted a lot of soul searching in Israeli academia."