British Academics Drop Planned Boycott of Israel

Britain's University and College Union decides boycott of Israeli universities illegal, couldn't be implemented.

A British academic union dropped controversial plans to boycott Israeli universities Friday, after it decided that the proposed boycott would be illegal and could not be implemented.

Britain's University and College Union (UCU) had been considering whether to halt funding, visits, conferences and joint publishing with Israeli institutions.

In May, the union voted to promote a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, accusing Israeli scholars of "cooperating in the occupation" of the Palestinian territories, which the motion said had denied education to Palestinians.

The decision was extensively criticized by many, including the former British prime minister Tony Blair, the heads of the leading universities in the U.K. and numerous North American academics.

Since then UCU has sought extensive legal advice in order to try to implement congress policy while protecting the position of members and of the union itself.

The legal advice makes it clear that making a call to boycott Israeli institutions would run a serious risk of violating U.K. anti-discrimination legislation.

The proposed boycott is also considered to be outside the aims and objects of the UCU.

A campus tour to discuss the boycott was also suspended following the legal advice.

UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said that "while UCU is at liberty to debate the pros and cons of Israeli policies, it cannot spend members' resources on seeking to test opinion on something which is in itself unlawful and cannot be implemented."

Foreign Minister Tzipi welcomed the UCU decision. She said that "the suspension of the impending boycott is important news for the Israeli academia. It supports the internationally held view that limiting the freedom of speech in academia is inherently wrong." She also said that it "proves that joint efforts can foil a cynical political move to undermine Israel's international legitimacy."

Livni questioned her British counterpart, David Miliband, on the issue at a meeting Friday. Livni also asked Miliband about a legal loophole that allows Israeli security officials to be tried in U.K. courts.

Ophir Frenkel, the executive director of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, a panel established by Bar Ilan University to coordinate the campaign against the boycott, welcomed the UCU decision. She said that "the UCU has finally understood that an academic boycott is not a legitimate measure of political protest."

In 2003, a proposal for British universities to sever all ties with Israeli academic institutions was defeated, but two years later Britain's Association of University Teachers - the UCU's predecessor - voted to boycott Israel's Haifa and Bar Ilan universities. That decision was overturned only a month later under fierce international pressure.

Efforts spearheaded by British unions such as the UCU to cut ties with Israel have outraged Israelis, many of whom accuse the groups of unfairly targeting their country.

The boycott talk has also embarrassed the British government, which dispatched its top higher education official to Israel in June in a show of solidarity with universities there.

Jews in the United States have jumped to defend Israel against its British detractors. The New York-based Anti-Defamation League place ads in leading newspapers decrying the motions as anti-Semitic, and Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz - a vocal Israel backer - even threatened to organize a group of lawyers to bankrupt any group implementing a boycott.

Israel's embassy in London welcomed the UCU's statement Friday.

"It's not the first boycott to be canceled," Israeli embassy spokesman Lior Ben Dor said. "We hope not to witness any more."

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