Major U.K. Teachers Union Votes for Academic Boycott of Israel

Education Minister Yuli Tamir: Action is on the fringes; the British mainstream views Israel as a partner

The largest union of university teachers in Britain yesterday adopted a resolution encouraging an academic boycott of Israel. The decision by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), which has 69,000 members, enjoins members to consider boycotting Israeli academics and academic institutions that do not publicly take an explicit stand against the "apartheid policies" and discriminatory policy in the field of education.

The Guardian reported that the resolution, passed at NATFHE's annual conference, aroused controversy, and at the end of the debate 53 percent of conference delegates supported it, while 38 percent voted against and the rest abstained. The resolution passed despite an aggressive and extensive campaign waged by Israeli organizations and Jewish groups in Britain and the United States.

Members of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, a body formed at Bar-Ilan University last year in the wake of an attempt to impose an academic boycott on Israel, said that "they will try to attack the resolution through legal channels." Last year, when a smaller British union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), passed a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel, it was canceled a month later by means of a procedural clause in the AUT regulations that was found by a British-Jewish academic.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir said yesterday that she will try to invite a group of senior academics from Britain to come to Israel "and prove that the boycott is on the fringes, and the mainstream actually views Israel as a partner."

On Monday, NATFHE secretary general Paul Mackney surprised the delegates with a speech against the motion. Secretaries general are not supposed to express their personal opinion, but are expected to support and work in accordance with any resolution passed by the union. Mackney was accused of "trying to undermine" the resolution.

"Most of us are very angry about the occupation of Palestine. But this isn't the motion and it isn't the way," Mackney said.

He also said that in order to adopt an academic boycott, a much more comprehensive debate on the issue must be carried out. "We need to develop a coherent and sustainable policy," Mackney said.

He proposed that in place of the boycott motion, the union pass a resolution reaffirming solidarity with the Palestinians.

'Reactionary and undemocratic'

Tom Hickey, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Brighton and the sponsor of the boycott motion, argued at the conference that, "The majority of Israeli academics are either complicit or acquiescent in the Israeli policies in the occupied territories."

According to Hickey, Israeli universities are places of freedom, but not for those excluded. "Where is the response from academic scholars to the horrors of life in the refugee camps? Where are the words of condemnation?" he asked.

Ronnie Fraser, chair of Academic Friends for Israel, termed the resolution "reactionary and undemocratic," and warned that its passage "only brings dishonor and sheer ridicule upon our union."

The motion ultimately passed by a delegate vote of 106 to 71.

The NATFHE and AUT are slated to merge in early June. According to NATFHE, yesterday's resolution will last as official union policy only until the merger, after which it will be in the category of an advisory to the new union, which might adopt it or adopt a new policy.

According to Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, vice president for research and development at Tel Aviv University, it is unlikely a scientist who has maintained ties with an Israeli scientist until now will sever these ties following the resolution passed yesterday. "However," she added, "whoever was inclined toward a boycott even before the resolution, has now received support."

Prof. Yosef Yeshurun, rector of Bar-Ilan University and chair of the International Committee for Academic Freedom, ventured that "the decision will not have an impact on Israeli science in the near future. But you also have to take into account the long-term implications."

According to Yeshurun, additional academic organizations in Europe might pass similar motions, and noted that such resolutions stand to hurt mainly young scientists who have not yet solidified a network of personal ties.

Mackney said there were British academics boycotting Israel even before the "official boycott" was adopted. He added that he knows colleagues, who as a direct result of the debate provoked by the draft resolution "ask their colleagues in Israel about their attitude toward what's going on in the occupied territories."

The efforts in Britain to impose an official academic boycott on Israel have received backing from dozens of Palestinian civilian organizations. The umbrella group Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel praised NATFHE for "leading the way in moral responsibility."

According to the group, "The persistence of academic boycott efforts proves that many academics in the U.K. and beyond do not buy the disingenuous claim that boycott of Israeli academic institutions conflicts with 'academic freedom' or 'inadvertently promotes anti-Semitism.'"

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, Lord Triesman, issued a statement yesterday saying: "We regret today's decision by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education to vote in favor of boycotting Israeli academics and institutions. The British Government has a record of supporting academic freedom for academics throughout the world. We also recognize the independence of NATFHE. We believe that such academic boycotts are counterproductive and retrograde. Far more can be obtained through dialogue and academic cooperation."