U.K. academics vote on Israeli boycott

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

Alan Cowell | The New York Times | 30 May 2006

Britain's biggest association of teachers in higher education approved Monday a resolution urging its 67,000 members to consider boycotting Israeli academics who fail to renounce what it called Israel's "apartheid policies." The resolution by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, a victory for supporters of a boycott, raised the stakes in a contest among academics in Britain, the United States and the Middle East that has evoked questions of academic freedom and Palestinian resistance. The debate has threatened to further divide British academics into camps for and against the imposition of penalties on Israeli university teachers cast as complicit in Israeli government actions in the West Bank and Gaza. At its annual conference in Blackpool, northern England, the association, better known by its acronym NATFHE, voted 106 to 71 in favor of a resolution inviting the organization's members "to consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and nondiscrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals." There were 21 abstentions, according to Trevor Phillips, a NATFHE spokesman. The text of the resolution noted "continuing Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices" and it urged NATFHE members to "consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies." The resolution was "advisory" rather than mandatory, Phillips said. It echoed a call last year by the smaller Association of University Teachers that first demanded a boycott of two Israeli universities and then withdrew the call under pressure from some of its members. The two unions are set to merge into a single body, the University and College Union, on June 1 and there has been some discussion of the resolution's status after that date. "Its only status is that it is considered advisory to the new union," Phillips said. But some academics said the struggle over the principle of boycotting would carry over to the new organization. Sue Blackwell, a lecturer in English at Birmingham University and a supporter of last year's boycott move, said: "This is a contentious issue of policy. The new union will have to adopt its own policy." Emanuele Ottolenghi, who teaches Israeli politics at Oxford's St Antony's College, and who opposes the boycott, said: "The view is that this is purely symbolic and will have no consequences" after the creation of the new union. "But I think it will have consequences, not so much because it will be binding but because it creates a precedent," he said. "This will bolster the pro-boycott lobby" within the new organization, he added. He said he would personally ask to be boycotted by other academics who supported the resolution. "I don't think anyone should be asked to come clean about political views as a precondition" for academic cooperation, he said in a telephone interview. "These people are not adhering to the ethical values of academia," he said, referring to the pro-boycott lobby. Palestinian supporters of the boycott argue that it should be imposed as part of a broader effort to isolate Israel modeled on the sanctions deployed against white-ruled South Africa in the apartheid era. In a statement after the resolution was approved Monday, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said: "Just as in the South African case, a comprehensive regime of sanctions and boycotts remains not only the most politically effective but also the most morally sound strategy in bringing about Israel's compliance with international law and universal principles of human rights." "Only through such effective pressures will there be hope for a just peace in our region, based on equality and dignity for all," the statement said. Opponents of the boycott argue that the measure would inhibit the free exchange of ideas and other academic freedoms. They have likened the idea of vetting the political beliefs of Israeli academics to McCarthyism in the United States. But some British academics, like Ms Blackwell, dismiss those accusations. "There are people who say this is an attack on free speech, academic freedom," she said. "But I have no time for them because they say nothing about the freedom of Palestinian academics" struggling to draw pay or even get to their lecture halls because of the barrier Israel has built in the West Bank. Blackwell is a member of a commission from the smaller Association of University Teachers studying the Israel-Palestine academic issue. The commission has drawn up proposals for escalating penalties against universities, starting with the "graylisting" of academic institutions - meaning publishing the institution's names as a body that is not adhering to adequate standards - and leading to a full boycott. "The purpose of an international graylist or boycott of academic institutions is to make either those institutions' managements or the government of the country concerned think again about their policies in relation to academic issues and human rights," the report said, according to Blackwell. "A stepped or graded approach is, therefore, recommended as the best way of creating the greatest response. "The commission sees this as a gradual process starting with actions intended to exert influence but leading ultimately to coercive action up to an including a total boycott of all academic activity." Such proposals seem likely to recur within the British debate, deepening the divide.