Civil Servants Join Fray / Another U.K. Union Considers Israel Boycott

Britain's second-largest trade union will soon debate an economic boycott of Israel, following on the heels of Wednesday's decision by the country's lecturers union to recommend an academic boycott.

UNISON, the civil servants union, is due to discuss the boycott measure at its annual conference June 19-22. If enacted, it could have serious economic consequences, as the 1.5 million-member union has considerable economic clout.

The boycott proposal was submitted by the union's community and mental health branch in Manchester, which has consistently advanced anti-Israel initiatives at union meetings in recent years.

Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini termed the resolution "dangerous, as it is liable to hurt many workers and employers in Israel." Histadrut officials said that if enacted, the proposal would probably result in both a consumer boycott and divestment from Israeli companies by the union's pension fund.

In contrast, Israeli professors predicted yesterday that the academic boycott resolution would have little impact, just as two earlier boycotts declared by the British lecturers' unions did. One, by the AUT, was overturned a month later in a revote; the other, by NATFHE, became invalid shortly afterward when NATFHE and AUT merged to form the current group, the University and College Union. The UCU's decision is merely a recommendation, which must still be approved by the union's local chapters.

Nevertheless, the UCU decision elicited sharp condemnations in Britain. Bill Rammell, Britain's minister for higher education, said that the British government supports academic freedom and vehemently opposes an academic boycott of Israel. And The Russell Group, which unites Britain's leading research universities, said the decision was "in direct conflict with the mission of a university" and pledged that its universities "will uphold academic freedom by standing firm against any boycott that threatens it."

That pleased Professor David Newman of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who said it was critical that British universities lead the fight against the boycott. Until now, he said, the fight has been led by Jewish organizations, and that helps boycott proponents paint the issue as a political one rather than a battle over academic freedom.

In another sharp reaction, Elizabeth Goldhirsh, director of a $150 million cancer research fund, informed the UCU yesterday that while the fund, currently limited to American scientists, had been considering allowing British scientists to apply for grants, it had decided not to do so in light of the boycott decision.

Professor Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University, said that imposing sanctions on groups that support academic boycotts was the correct approach.