World's Largest Union for Academics to Investigate Education in Gaza

British union votes to send delegation to probe effects of Israeli blockade, despite criticism that trip is both dangerous and a waste of money.

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Palestinian schoolchildren walk in debris by a damaged school in Gaza City, Nov. 24, 2012.
Palestinian schoolchildren walk in debris by a damaged school in Gaza City, Nov. 24, 2012.Credit: AP

A leading British trade union is planning to send a delegation to Gaza to view the effects of the Israeli blockade on the territory, despite the opposition of the United Kingdom government and the opposition of some of its members.

The University and College Union voted at its congress last week to send the delegation “as soon as possible,” the Times Higher Education journal reported. The decision was labelled dangerous by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which advises Britons against traveling to the territory, and as an unjustifiable use of money by several of its members.

The UCU is the largest trade union for academics in the world, with some 108,000 members.

At least half of the delegation will be women and the trip will take place “in liaison with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign”. It is expected to report back to the union’s national executive committee to help inform union policy on Gaza.

However, several delegates have raised concerns over safety, following an abortive women’s delegation to Gaza in March, during which dozens of human rights campaigners en route to Gaza were detained at the airport in Cairo before being deported by Egyptian officials.

“We are ignoring clear safety advice issued by the FCO, and we will struggle to get travel insurance,” said Emma-Jane Phillips, representing Northumbria University. “I also don’t know how we can justify spending thousands of pounds of members’ funds on this trip when we have so many major disputes and battles to fight [nearer to home],” she added.

But Ann Blair, from the University of Leeds, said the trip was vital to reaching an understanding of how the education of women and girls in Gaza had been affected by the blockade.

“Some will see this as a side issue, but [women’s education] is central to our aims and objectives,” Blair said.

The trip was also likely to "reopen the vexed issue of the UCU’s political stance towards Israel, which has alienated some Jewish academics," the journal wrote.

The UCU has been dogged by controversy in recent years over its policy of boycotting Israeli academics and a number of Jewish members have resigned, claiming institutional anti-Semitism.

A 2012 legal action against the UCU, claiming that its anti-Israeli motions amounted to anti-Semitism, was rejected by an employment tribunal, which wrote "we greatly regret that the case was ever brought. At heart it represents an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means."

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