CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
19 May 2008
By MATTHEW KALMAN
Britain's largest faculty union was described as "racist" and
"McCarthyite" on Wednesday after its annual congress approved a
resolution asking members to question Israeli academics on their
political views before working with them.
The new policy for the 120,000-member University and College Union was
adopted by a show of hands of the 300 delegates in attendance after an
hourlong debate in Manchester, England. The question of how to carry
out the policy was referred to the organization's leadership.
The debate was the third to address the issue in recent years. In 2005
one of the unions that merged to create the UCU the following year
adopted a widely criticized policy calling for an academic boycott of
Israeli universities. Last year a UCU debate on the issue plunged the
newborn union back into controversy.
Wednesday's motion, titled "Palestine and the Occupation," stopped
short of calling for an immediate boycott. It noted "the humanitarian
catastrophe imposed on Gaza" by Israel and the European Union and the
"apparent complicity of most of the Israeli academy."
The motion then proposed that "colleagues be asked to consider the
moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli
institutions and to discuss the occupation with individuals and
institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they
are collaborating." The motion also called for "a wide discussion by
colleagues of the appropriateness of continued educational links with
Israeli academic institutions."
Delegates rejected amendments, proposed by members from University
College London, that aimed to make the motion more "fair and
"At the moment, the motion can be read as rather one-sided, and the
assumption about complicity, apparent or otherwise, would appear to be
unhelpful," said Dave Guppy of University College.
Tom Hickey of the national executive committee and Brighton
University, which proposed the motion, told delegates: "Being a
student or teacher in Palestine is not easy. ... We are talking about
not just impediment but serial humiliation, and that's the order of
the day in Palestine."
Representatives of the union's national executive committee, who were
cosponsors of the resolution, attempted to deflect criticism in a
statement issued immediately after the vote.
"We have passed a motion to provide solidarity with the Palestinians,
not to boycott Israel or any other country's academic institutions,"
said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU. "I made clear to
delegates that the union will defend their right to debate this and
other issues. Implementation of the motion will now fall to the
national executive committee."
Racist and Discriminatory
But a group representing the mainstream of Jewish opinion in Britain
slammed the new policy as racist and discriminatory. It pointed out
that none of the other international policy resolutions adopted by the
union on Wednesday called on members to engage in similar discussions
with academic colleagues in any other country, no matter how serious
the human-rights violations there.
"The resolution demands of its members, including Jewish and Israeli
academics, that they explain their politics as a precondition to
normal academic contact," said Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic
Friends of Israel.
He described this "blatant McCarthyite demand" as "discriminatory,
anti-Semitic, and, we believe, in clear violation of the UK Race
"It beggars belief," he said.
"By passing the motion," Mr. Fraser continued, "the UCU has become
institutionally racist by creating a discriminatory atmosphere on
campus towards Jewish academics, many of whom are members of the UCU.
Are the UCU intending to make it a condition of membership that all
academics conform to this policy? If not, how do they intend to
implement this resolution?"
Dan Ashley, a UCU spokesman, refused to answer when asked to explain
why the national executive committee had proposed a policy that
singled out Israeli academics for different treatment than the
scholars of any other country. At the same session, the congress
adopted resolutions expressing support for academics and noting
human-rights abuses in Cuba, Darfur, Egypt, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe. No
one suggested that the potential academic collaborators in those
countries be subjected to the same preconditions as Israeli academics.
British university heads also expressed their displeasure at the
union's insistence on continuing to discuss the possibility of
boycotting Israeli academics.
"We believe a boycott of this kind, advocating the severing of
academic links with a particular nationality or country, is at odds
with the fundamental principle of academic freedom," said a statement
issued by Universities UK, which represents vice chancellors of
British universities. "Speculation about a potential boycott serves no
useful purpose and damages the international reputation of UK higher