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UK academics back proposal to boycott Israeli universities by 158 to 99

Date: 31 / 05 / 2007 Time: 10:29

Friday 1 June 2007

Bethlehem - Ma’an - On Wednesday, at the UK’s University and College Union (UCU)’s first annual conference, British academics were urged to back calls for a boycott of Israeli universities.

The delegates were asked to consider the "moral implications" of links with Israeli universities. The motion condemned Israel for its "denial of educational rights" for the Palestinian people.

According to the BBC, delegates backed the motion in a card vote by 158 votes to 99, with 17 abstentions.

This launches the union into a year-long debate into backing "a comprehensive and consistent boycott" of all Israeli academic institutions, to be voted upon at next year’s conference.

Philosophy lecturer at Brighton University Tom Hickey, who proposed the motion, described the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as "barbaric," the BBC reported. He said, "Are we to look away? If we do we make ourselves complicit in it."

According to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, he offset this by saying, "There will be adverse effects on individuals, but this is not targeting individuals or trying to break contacts with them."

Those opposing the motion argued that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions would do nothing to help the plight of the Palestinian people.

According to the BBC, Thames Valley University delegate Stephen Desmond said a blanket boycott of Israeli universities did nothing to move a two-state solution forward. "It does not move Palestinians to a place where Palestinians have a homeland to call their own," he claimed.

The boycott was also opposed by UK education minister, Bill Rammell. According to the Guardian newspaper, he said: "The UK government fully supports academic freedom and is firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics. Whilst I appreciate the independence of the UCU, I am very disappointed that the union has decided to pass a motion which encourages its members to consider boycotting Israeli academics and education institutions. I profoundly believe this does nothing to promote the Middle East peace process."

London School of Economics delegate Mike Cushman argued that "Universities are to Israel what the Springboks were to South Africa - a symbol of their national identity," the BBC reported.

University of East London delegate Philip Marfleet described the striking difference he experienced between universities in Israel and in the occupied territories during a recent visit. While the Israeli university was functioning well, the Palestinian university he saw had been closed for 51 consecutive weeks because of arrests and incursions by Israeli forces, the BBC said.
"Israeli academic freedom comes at the cost of the denial of the most basic of academic freedoms of Palestinian students," he added.

However, the decision is receiving criticism from many Jewish groups and others who say that a boycott is also discriminatory. Ofir Frankel, spokesman for the Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, said, "We see it as discriminatory and counterproductive. It will make British academia look a little less serious," the Guardian newspaper reported.

A full debate on the issue is now expected within UCU branches throughout the UK, the BBC reported. A vote on a formal boycott may be held at the union’s conference next year.

If the boycott is agreed upon it could mean that UCU members are urged not to attend conferences at Israeli universities or submit articles to their journals, motion proposer Hickey said. It could also prevent any academic affiliated to an Israeli institution from attending or participating in British conferences.

It would not mean Israeli academics could not visit UK campuses.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has saluted the historic decision by the University and College Union (UCU) to support motions that endorse an academic boycott against Israel.

In a press release, PACBI said: "Throughout forty years of Israeli military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Israeli academics have duly continued to serve in the occupation army, thereby participating in, or at least witnessing, crimes committed on a daily basis against the civilian population of Palestine. No Israeli academic institution, association, or union has ever publicly opposed Israel’s occupation and colonization, its system of racial discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens, or its obstinate denial of the internationally-sanctioned rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties. Furthermore, the Israeli academy has been in direct or indirect collusion with the military-intelligence establishment, providing it with “academic” research services to sustain its oppression."

PACBI also recalled: "Academic boycott has been advocated in the past as an effective tool in resisting injustice. In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi called for boycotting British-run academic institutions, to increase Indian self-reliance and also to protest the role of those institutions in maintaining British colonial domination over India. In the 1950s, the African National Congress (ANC) called for a comprehensive boycott of the entire South African academy, as a means to further isolate the apartheid regime."

The boycott movement is gaining momentum in the UK. In April, 130 British doctors called for the boycott of the Israeli Medical Association and its expulsion from the World Medical Association. The National Union of Journalists also declared a boycott of Israeli goods at their annual meeting in April in response to the Israeli "aggression" in the war with Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Recently, the Architects & Planners for Justice in Palestine issued a petition, which says: "We ask the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) to meet their professional obligations … to declare their opposition to this inhuman occupation.”