Ministers, Professors Slam U.K. Boycott of Israeli Academe

U.K. lecturers to boycott academics who fail to condemn Israeli policy; U.K. gov't says 'regrets' move.

Israeli leaders and academics Monday slammed a vote by the largest university and college lecturers' union in Britain in favor of a motion recommending that its members boycott Israeli academics and institutions that do not publicly declare their opposition to Israeli policy in the territories.

The motion passed with 106 in favor and 71 against. There were 21 abstentions.

The 69,000-member National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) debated the proposal for the boycott at its annual conference in the northern English city of Blackpool. Two parts of the motion passed with a show of hands while a third went to a vote. Under the boycott, union members also will not submit articles to Israeli research journals.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir lashed out at the boycott on Monday, calling it detrimental to the world of academia.

"The decision to boycott academic institutions is a move worthy of condemnation and revulsion," Tamir said. "Those how are implementing this boycott are harming academia's freedom and turning it into a tool for political forces."

Last week, Tamir spoke with the British minister for higher education and requested that he act to prevent the boycott.

National Religious Party MK Zevulun Orlev, chairman of the Knesset Science Committee, appealed Monday to parliament members from Germany, Canada, Britain and France to condemn the teachers' union decision.

"This is a test of the free world," Orlev wrote to them. "We expect you to condemn this anti-Semitic and racist decision and to help institutions of higher education in your countries tighten their cooperation with science, technology and higher education institutes in Israel."

Haifa University also condemned the boycott.

"Any attempt to create ties between politics and academic research is simply McCarthyism. Haifa University rejects the decision by the British teachers' union to place a boycott on members of Israeli academia," university president Aharon Ben-Ze'ev said.

"This is a hypocritical and callous decision that has no place in the academic world. Haifa University calls on all those who hold dear academic freedom to join us in fighting this decision and act to bring about its cancellation. The university will continue to cooperate with its colleagues and friends in Israel, Britain and around the world in an effort to defend the principle of academic freedom and to fight the intention to boycott members of Israeli academia."

The British government expressed its regret at NATFHE's decision, calling it counterproductive.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Lord Triesman issued a statement saying: "We regret today's decision by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) 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."

Triesman himself served as deputy general secretary of NATFHE in 1984 and was general secretary of the Association of University Teachers trade union from 1993 to 2001.

Israeli and Jewish organizations in the U.S. and U.K. ran campaigns against the boycott, including a series of petitions against the motion.

On Saturday, the Guardian published a letter signed by over 600 academics calling for the motion to be dropped.

The NATFHE president, John Wilkin, also received a petition with 4,725 signatures from Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an American organization whose mission statement includes encouraging academics "to develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slanders..."

On Monday, NATFHE Secretary General Paul Mackney surprised the union with a speech against the motion, prior to the vote.

"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 a decision to boycott Israeli academia a much more comprehensive debate on the issue must be carried out.

"We need to develop a coherent and sustainable policy," Mackney said.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said, "The NATFHE vote proves once again that despite all the obstacles, boycotting Israeli academic institutions due to their complicity in maintaining Israel's special form of apartheid against the Palestinians remains prominent on the agenda of western progressives and human rights activists."

"This is a significant accomplishment considering the campaign of intimidation and bullying waged against proponents of the NATFHE academic boycott initiative by Israeli networks and powerful Zionist lobbies in the United Kingdom and the United States," the statement read.

"At this stage of the international boycott movement, Palestinian boycott advocates", they said, aim first to keep alive an open debate on the need for boycott and sanctions against Israel "until it fully complies with international law and universal human rights."

For comment on the U.K. academic boycott click here