For the record – Israel matters at UCU Congress 2015

There’s always a hostile special interest taken in Israel at UCU Congress and this year was no different. I wasn’t there but followed the #ucu15 Twitter hashtag – eyewitnesses, feel free to flesh out the details.

There was a motion from the University of Brighton to confirm the boycott of Israel and circulate the PACBI guidance.

43  UCU and BDS campaign

University of Brighton Grand Parade

Congress notes:

1.     the achievements of the global BDS campaign, particularly in North America;

2.     the overwhelming adoption by Congress (2009 and 2010), after four years’ careful reflection, of a general pro-boycott policy directed at Israeli products and institutions, including academic institutions;

3.     Congress decision (2009) that all colleagues be urged, in the light of UCU policy, to consider whether cooperation with Israeli institutions is morally or politically defensible;

4.     that unions have no mechanisms to impose a boycott, and implementation is only encouragement of individuals to reflect, hence legal anti-implementation cautions are irrelevant;

5.     advice to some members from UCU, and some public information about UCU’s position, have been misleading or inconsistent with policy.

Congress reaffirms its pro-BDS policy.

Congress resolves:

a. all members will be contacted individually, in a dedicated e-mail, reminding them of policy on Israel, and with a link to the PACBI guidelines;

b. any misrepresentations of UCU’s policy will be corrected publicly.

One of the more self-referential things about this motion is the muddling of ‘achievements’ in getting institutions to boycott Israel with the actual or probably ‘achievements’ for Palestinians which amount to none that I know of – but boycotters don’t bother themselves about that because the boycott mostly exists for their own aggrandisement. For an organisation which finds it increasingly hard to stand up to its own bosses it often seems that nothing better restores its sense of potency than standing up to Israel and the UK Jewish establishment. That the motion contains no mention of Palestinian needs or wishes adds to the impression of gross narcissism.

The PACBI guidelines for boycotters used to be along the lines of rant followed by directives, but lacked support for its adherents who, it turned out, were potentially legally exposed. As a campaign against Israel, one party in a conflict which is not one-sided, it would be partisan and hostile for UCU to circulate the PACBI guidance without including other viewpoints. Note that since July 2014 the guidance now emphasises that boycotting Israel doesn’t mean ostracising individual Israelis. Because of the antisemitic and Israeli-hating prejudices the boycott attracts, many Israelis have been personally targets of obviously racist boycott activism, hence this new aspect to the guidance is badly needed and long overdue. I’d be surprised if UCU boycotters discussed these developments, or are even aware of them. As far as I know the issue wasn’t raised and nobody proposed an amendment protecting the rights of Israeli academics. This is in keeping with UCU’s double standards on rights for Israeli academics compared to other academics. Note that motion 10 on overseas campuses called on UCU’s National Executive Committee to connect with democratic trade unions in other countries – however, this conflicts with policy from 2010 when UCU decided to sever all relations with Israel’s equivalent of the TUC (motion 31).

Thanks to Sarah Annes Brown‘s willingness to oppose the motion (update: for details see her comment below), a moderate number of people felt able to vote against it. The motion passed but was immediately voided because of longstanding legal advice sought by UCU trustees which casts doubt on the legality of boycott campaigning. Like UKIP and the Conservative right, UCU boycotters find their style is cramped by anti-discrimination legislation.

Another Israel-related motion concerned the cancelled Southampton Conference.

HE31 Composite: Conference cancellation and academic freedom

Leeds Beckett University, University of Winchester, London South Bank University.

Conference notes:

1.     the University of Southampton’s cancellation of the International Law and the State of Israel conference following political pressure;

2.     the official ‘health and safety’ reason was belied by the assurances of peaceful protest from pro-Zionist groups, and police assurances on security;

3.     this academic conference had a normal CfP, invitations to Israelis, and scholars with divergent views;

4.     6,000 signatories in 24 hours signed a petition condemning the University decision.

Conference believes the management decision was related to nature of the conference, not health or safety concerns; constitutes a surrender to political pressure; and is an unprecedented assault on academic freedom.

Conference instructs the HEC, in the absence of an appropriate apology, and in response to any such request from the University of Southampton UCU, to commence ‘greylisting’ of the University of Southampton unless satisfactory assurances on academic freedom are forthcoming from University of Southampton management, including in appointments, course design and staff research.

The Southampton Conference was organised by Israel boycott campaigners. It included a very small number of presenters who could be said to have dissenting views, sufficient only for a foil. I should say here that those people do not consider themselves foils, and would have put their arguments trenchantly. I’m not sure that the conference’s open call for participation was in place from the start – in any case, the obvious thrust of the meeting would have deterred everyone but the toughest dissenter from the majority anti-Israel line. For all but a tiny number of Israelis holding exceptional views, this conference would have been ‘about us without us’. The absurdity of discussing one country’s legitimacy without including the full range of views is what marks this conference out as a campaign meeting.  One of the organisers holds hateful racialised opinions of Jews which should have sounded alarm bells for an anti-racist trade union. None of this relates to Southampton’s security reasons for cancelling the conference, but it is important to the debate.

Moreover the cancellation was upheld in the High Court and deserves to be taken seriously even if, like several Engage contributors (though not me), you protest Southampton’s decision to move the conference off-campus. Instead we have a rush to allege that sinister overwhelming power has been brought to bear (subtext: by Jews). What is particularly galling is that these fulsome campaigners for academic freedom are totally quiet about an important precedent. Less than a year ago and for what seem to be the same reasons inept Palestine campaigning led Southampton University to prevent an individual Israeli academic, Mark Auslender, from presenting there. And unlike the anti-Israel conference, Auslender didn’t get offered support to present elsewhere. So perhaps if the Southampton conference campaigners had taken risk assessment as seriously as those of the QUB conference on Charlie Hebdo, they might have managed to pull off their conference.

But facts seem to slide off UCU Congress when it comes to Israel and so they voted to greylist Southampton. The only UCU greylisting policy I can find (correct me if necessary) is from 2007 – it relates to international activity but I can’t imagine the principles would differ much. It says that greylisting is supposed to be carefully thought through with a view to understanding the purpose and outcomes, and be capable of having an effect or creating an acceptable result. Greylisting also isn’t supposed to happen unless Southampton members trigger it, but Southampton wasn’t involved in this motion and when the motion came up for debate, I understand it was remitted from the Higher Education meeting because Southamption members didn’t support the greylisting. However, it came up again in a different session and was carried.

There was another Israel-related motion in support of Steven Salaita, an academic whose contract was terminated for the nature of his response to Israel’s last major military action in Gaza. The following motion was carried and Salaita’s reward for tweeting aggressively about Jews, Zionists and Israel and making some students feel unsafe on campus was to escape any criticism and be given a symbolic donation of £100 to help with his legal campaign.

46  Support for Steven Salaita (academic freedom) – London Metropolitan University North

Congress notes the University of Illinois’ revocation (in 2014) of the decision to appoint the Muslim-American scholar Steven Salaita just three weeks before his scheduled classes were due to begin.

Prof. Salaita, whose parents are Palestinians, had been a vociferous critic of Israel’s assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. University officials justified his firing on the basis that his many tweets on the subject were considered ‘uncivil’. A freedom of information request revealed that the university had come under pressure from many, predominantly pro-Israel, alumni and donors.


condemns the firing of Professor Salaita as a blatant violation of his academic freedom

calls on the general secretary to issue a statement in support of Professor Salaita on behalf of UCU

authorises a payment of $100 to be made to support Professor Salaita’s legal challenge against the University of Illinois.

As a force in higher education UCU isn’t very influential. Several other motions were to do with union democracy and are indicative of a democratic deficit. UCU has been characterised as domineering activists and a correspondingly inert membership, both easily dismissed by sector policy makers. An important thing to know is that, when given a chance to have their say on boycotting Israel, even though the activists are pushing it the members reject it. The motions, the back-turning, and the double standards on academic freedom are the sorts of postures weak unions strike. The solution can only be for members to get involved and active.

6 Responses to “For the record – Israel matters at UCU Congress 2015”

  1. s4r4hbrown Says:

    Thanks Mira – that’s very helpful. In fact I would think that most voting against the motion I opposed probably intended to do so anyway (and may have done so because they didn’t want to go against legal advice rather than because they were anti-boycott). However, as a new delegate, I did find it easier to vote against, or abstain, on an issue if at least one person had spoken against – so speaking could have made at least a small difference. Pasted below is more or less what I said – except I had to paraphrase the PACBI quote due to time constraints. I wanted to bring out the way opposition to S’ton cancellation supposedly hinged on the anti-free speech consequences of shutting down *ideas* but no one seemed bothered that the PACBI guidelines suggest that the same people should be treated differently depending on the ideas they want to air. Whereas S’ton had a very marked, one-sided agenda, PACBI won’t tolerate events which are, not one-sidedly anti-Israel, but balanced (where they involve Palestinians and Israelis).

    “There are many arguments for and against the boycott campaign which have been rehearsed countless times, and I am sure most here will be familiar with these. For example arguments against include the assertion that it is counterproductive, alienates some members and potential members and represents a disproportionate focus on one country.

    I will just pick out one element of this motion, the proposal to send an email to all members with a link to guidelines on the academic boycott from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, PACBI.

    We heard some eloquent words against the cancellation of the conference on Israel and international law at Southampton yesterday.

    Like many I found aspects of that proposed conference challenging, but I opposed cancellation, as did many others who oppose academic boycotts of Israel. I think it’s generally better that ideas be aired and debated rather than closed down.

    Here is one passage from those PACBI guidelines under the heading of normalsisation projects. It’s slightly cut.

    “Academic activities and projects involving Palestinians and/or other Arabs on one side and Israelis on the other (whether bi- or multi- lateral) that are based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed or that claim that both colonizers and colonized are equally responsible for the “conflict” are intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible forms of normalization that ought to be boycotted [12]. Far from challenging the unjust status quo, such projects contribute to its endurance. Examples include events, projects, or publications that are designed explicitly to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation without addressing the root causes of injustice and the requirements of justice.

    Joint projects that meet the following two conditions are not considered forms of normalization and are therefore exempt from boycott:

    (a) the Israeli party in the project recognizes the comprehensive Palestinian rights under international law (corresponding to the 3 rights in the BDS call); and
    (b) the project/activity is one of “co-resistance” rather than co-existence.[13]”

    So here it is suggested that people adjudicate whether an event is valid based, not on their affiliations, but on the political views which might be expressed there.

    But as one delegate said yesterday.

    ‘Freedom of debate is when you say things that are controversial and some people will be upset by that’.

  2. Larry Ray Says:

    Why does anyone still bother with the UCU? It’s a useless union anyway that caves in on any difficult issues like signing away our pensions. What BTW are the supposed ‘achievements of the global BDS campaign, particularly in North America’? This is a campaign of racist violence and harassment (which by implication the UCU supports) but hasn’t actually achieved anything has it?

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      Hi Larry, we bother because it is our trade union, the only viable one, and even if we don’t personally feel the need of a trade union, we all have colleagues who do.

  3. Larry Ray Says:

    Hi Mira. I question whether it is actually viable. But yes it’s all we’ve got. And how much racism to we accept as a downside to having a ‘union’? We could I suppose dismiss the Brighton brigade and UCU “Left”, as you rightly suggest, as narcissistic poseurs but the crunch comes when universities do attempt to develop links with Israeli HEIs (as I’m currently doing) and invite Israeli scholars to visit. This is something Engage contributors have wrestled with for the past 10 years.

  4. Lynne T Says:

    Steven Salaita’s “contract” wasn’t terminated. The head of a department at U Illinois put together an offer to hire him for a position for which he had no qualifications. When it came time for U Illinois administration to confirm the hiring offer, Salaita’s social media presence emerged as a very toxic one and the job offer rescinded on that basis. Salaita, having quit the position he held despite the uncertainty of the job offer, launched a law suit and went on a stump tour put together by the usual suspects. I hear that he has piped down since, possibly because his attorneys told him to put a sock in it if he had any hope of getting a settlement from the University.

    What has happened since, is that the University has been subjected to a boycott by Salaita’s supporters.

    • Ben Says:

      “What has happened since, is that the University has been subjected to a boycott by Salaita’s supporters.”
      And that’s a true and honest shame–the UoI was getting so much out of working with all 7 of those people.

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