The clubby staff lounges of British universities and the raucous meeting halls of labor unions have long shared a sympathy for the Palestinian cause that has found expression lately with a series of calls for professional unions to boycott Israel.
Any boycotts would almost certainly be a long way off. They are minority initiatives strongly opposed by the union leaderships. But they have outraged Israelis and American Jews.
The increasingly strident statements threaten to escalate into a diplomatic row despite British leaders’ attempts to play them down.
The latest furor erupted after the University and College Union decided on May 30 to consult members on halting funding, visits, conferences and joint publishing with Israeli institutions.
The motion accuses Israeli scholars of being complicit in the 40-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, which it claims has denied education to Palestinians through invasions, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and the arrests of teachers, lecturers and students.
The National Union of Journalists approved a boycott on Israeli products in April and the public services union, Britain’s largest, will discuss a similar motion next week. Many Israelis feel it’s unfair to criticize them and not the Palestinians, and to single out Israel when so many countries commit far worse acts.
Such boycott calls have come up in Canada, Sweden, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, South Africa and other democracies, but none has drawn such attention as the British actions.
Britain has long-established ties and interests in the Arab world. Former British Primie Minister Blair has condemned the boycott calls, and last week he sent Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell to Israel to show solidarity with universities there. Britain’s House of Lords was to debate the academics’ motion and issue an appeal for calm.
Israel has responded sharply to the latest boycott threat, with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni saying: “We must fight the boycott on every level and with all the means at our disposal. This is an act of hypocrisy and hatred that must not be allowed to raise its head, even if it comes from marginal bodies.”
In the United States, Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, a strong Israel backer, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper he had lined up a 100-strong legal team ready to “devastate and bankrupt” anyone who boycotts Israeli universities.
The New York-based Anti-Defamation League placed newspapers ads decrying the motions as anti-Semitic, arguing the academics’ union unfairly singled out Israel while ignoring human rights violators such as Iran, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Boycott proponents say they are targeting Israeli universities for failing to take a stand on the occupation.
“If academic freedom is indivisible, it is time Israel spoke out for academic freedom for their neighbors just across the border,” said Steven Rose, secretary of the British Committees for the Universities of Palestine who initiated the boycott calls.
But the University and College Union’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, said most members will reject the motion and that any boycott would be unenforceable. Students’ unions have denounced the boycott call, while academics at Britain’s leading universities have already signaled they would not participate, just as British journalists have ignored their union’s boycott.
“We see that as punishing academics for the political actions of their governments,” said Oxford Physiology Professor Dennis Noble.
Some warn a boycott would set back peace efforts.
“By their actions, the UCU will embolden the Israeli right, who will be able to say: ‘Look, the world hates and isolates us: This is exactly why we have to be militarily strong,'” British Jewish columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote in London’s Evening Standard.
Many note that Israeli academics have tended, if anything, to back the Palestinian cause and oppose the occupation.
“The best ways to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence are education projects, projects fighting poverty actions that promote Arabs in Israel and in the territories,” said Haifa University President Aaron Ben-Zeev, “and we are doing it every day, every week.”
– Associated Press
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com