AUT boycott supporters: Efforts to ostracize Israel will continue
Council of British academics overturns boycott of Haifa, Bar Ilan universities, put in place last month.
LONDON - Britain's biggest union of university teachers voted Thursday to end its boycott of two Israeli universities, although supporters said they would continue their efforts to boycott Israel. The decision to cancel the boycott passed by a two-thirds majority. The boycott's opponents called Thursday's decision "a victory."
The council of the 40,000-member Association of University Teachers (AUT) announced it had decided in a special session to overturn the boycott against Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities immediately. The measure, which had drawn outspoken criticism, was put in place last month.
The union said it would now base its policy on "providing practical solidarity for Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists and academics by agreeing on a motion committing the union to a full review of international policy."
In spite of a call by the union's general secretary, Sally Hunt, "to build bridges between those with opposing views here in the U.K. and to commit to supporting trade unionists in Israel and Palestine working for peace," Sue Blackwell, a lecturer at Birmingham University and a driving force behind the boycott, said she would continue her efforts. Blackwell said that while she had been accused of harming academic freedom, the discussion of such freedom had no significance while Palestinian students did not even have the freedom to get to university.
"Our struggle proved that when the facts and the truth are presented, persuasion is possible," said Professor Aharon Ben-Ze'ev, president of the University of Haifa. However, he added that the school was considering suing the union for libel. "From the beginning of this affair, we maintained that this unethical decision was based on a web of lies," Ben Ze'ev said. "I am disappointed that the leaders of the organization have not apologized to the university for the capricious maligning of its name."
The rector of Bar-Ilan University, Professor Yosef Yeshurun, praised the union's decision, saying boycotts should not be part of academia. But "the damage has been done," he said.
The individual to whom the Israeli universities apparently owe the cancellation of the boycott is Dr. Jon Pike, a philosophy lecturer at the Open University. Following the union's decision in April, Pike found a clause in it regulations allowing for the convening of a special session of the union's council with the collection of 25 signatures of council members favoring this move. He and a colleague, Dr. David Hirsch of Goldsmiths College (part of the University of London), collected the signatures within two days, which led to yesterday's meeting. After the meeting, Pike said the victory was not Ariel Sharon's, but a victory for an Israel with campuses where debate and discussion would replace the shedding of blood and Palestinians and Israelis would live side-by-side.
Approximately 100 students from various universities in Great Britain, accompanied by activists from Jewish organizations, staged a quiet demonstration Thursday outside the hall where the AUT meeting was taking place, handing out explanatory material and holding up signs.
Long-time British Jewish community leader Lord Greville Janner said in response to the decision that the academic community was a pioneer in cooperation with the other side, and a boycott was harmful to it.
Boycott supporters said they would bring a new resolution to boycott Israel at next year's council meeting. Professor Steven Rose, a delegate from the Open University, spoke in favor of the boycott at the council meeting. Rose pointed out that although the union's decision on the boycott was canceled, a union decision of two years ago to call a moratorium on scientific cooperation with Israel still stood. He pointed out that the European Union had instructed last March that there be no cooperation with organizations that have branches in the occupied territories, and Bar-Ilan University sponsors the Judea and Samaria College in Ariel.
Rose on Thursday rejected charges of anti-Semitism, saying that he grew up in an Orthodox and Zionist family, many of whose members were killed in the Holocaust. He said those at Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities who had raised their voices in protest against the infringement of their academic freedom did not do so when it came to the academic freedom of their Palestinian colleagues.
Call to fire NusseibehMeanwhile, Palestinian university teachers called for Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Jerusalem-based Al Quds University, to be fired for violating a boycott by signing a cooperation agreement with an Israeli school.
In a symbolic move aimed directly at the British boycott, Nusseibeh issued a joint statement in London on May 19 with Menachem Magidor, the president of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, calling for continued academic ties between their institutions. They said cooperation, not boycotts, will solve the two peoples' problems.