by David Hirsh
The campaign for an academic boycott of Israel has ended today in an absolute and final political, legal and moral defeat.
The University and College Union’s (UCU) own lawyers advised it that a policy to exclude academics who work in Israel from the global academic community – and to exclude nobody else on the planet - would have been a violation of equal opportunities legislation in Britain.
Given this legal advice, the leadership of the UCU had no choice but decisively to end the union’s flirtation with a boycott of Israeli academia. To persist in a ‘discussion’ of an illegal and discriminatory policy would have opened the union up to potentially fatal lawsuits on the grounds of unfair discrimination. Union members could have been held personally liable if they had ignored clear legal advice. The Opinion was given to UCU by a widely respected barrister.
UCU’s Strategy and Finance Committee voted unanimously today to end all consideration of the boycott proposal. The Opinion said:
"It would be beyond the Union's powers and unlawful for the Union, directly or indirectly to call for or to implement a boycott by the Union and its members of any kind of Israeli universities and other academic institutions; and that the use of Union funds directly or indirectly to further such a boycott would also be unlawful."The Opinion also said:
"...to ensure that the Union acts lawfully meetings should not be used to ascertain the level of support for such a boycott."It will be claimed by the campaign to exclude Israelis from our campuses, conferences and journals that the end of the boycott in UCU represents a capitulation to ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Zioinst’ law (the two adjectives have become inter-changeable amongst some ‘anti-Zionist’ ‘anti-capitalists’). In truth, however, anti-discrimination law is not a mode of state repression but a victory, hard-won, by generations of antiracist activists. It is a good thing that there is law in place which prohibits bodies like our union from discriminating against Jews. In the old days there was no legal prohibition on Jewish quotas and silent or explicit exclusions and boycotts of Jews by civil society organizations such as universities, golf-clubs and trades unions. The exclusion of Jews is no longer a private matter of choice for an organization; it is now illegal. This is good.
It is scandalous that the proposal to exclude Israeli academics was seriously considered by political people, trade unionists and by our union. It was a proposal for direct unfair discrimination on the grounds of nationality and for a policy of indirect unfair discrimination against Jews. It was, in effect if not in intent, a racist proposal. Engage, the network which came together to oppose the boycott, the antiracist campaign against antisemitism, said, from the beginning, that it was a racist proposal. People who consider themselves to be antiracists and who were seduced by the plan to punish Israeli academics for the consequences of the Israel/Palestine conflict should be ashamed that it took ‘bourgeois’ law to finish off this racist proposal.
Given the nature and the consequences of the history of exclusions and boycotts against Jews, particularly from universities, UCU members should have known better than to give a moment’s consideration to a proposal to exclude a significant proportion of the world’s Jewish scholars from the academic community in punishment for something which those Jewish scholars had not done.
Those who were for a boycott of Israel were not for boycotting the academics in all states which abused human rights but only in Jewish states which abused human rights. It was not a universal proposal for solidarity with all those who suffered from human rights abuses or from occupation. It was a proposal which singled out the academics of one state for unique punishment. It should have been obvious to decent people who wanted to help Palestine that a Jew-hunt was not just, would not be an effective remedy, and would surely license antisemitic ways of thinking. That this was not obvious should teach us all important lessons for the future.
The boycott proposal relied on a false and one-sided over-simplification of the Israel/Palestine conflict which portrayed Israel simply as the ‘oppressor’ and Palestine simply as the ‘oppressed’. In truth, while the occupation of Palestine constitutes a great wrong which needs to be righted, it is not true to imagine that the occupation is the result of some essential Israeli propensity to cruelty or oppression. On the contrary, the occupation is the result of a long and bloody conflict in which no nation is either hero or villain. Israel and Palestine need to make a peace which would guarantee both Israeli and Palestinian national independence.
Jews did not go to Palestine in order to get rich by exploiting the people who lived there. They went because Europe, after centuries of repression, exclusions and boycotts of Jews had attempted a ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’; Arab and Muslim nationalism drove the Jews out of great cities of the Middle East and into Israel; a century of Tsarist and Soviet antisemitism had forced Russian Jews to leave en masse in the early 1990s. There are no simple goodies and badies in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Palestinians have suffered terribly following their military defeats, both at the hands of Israel and at the hands of the Arab states. Again and again Israel, Palestine and the Arab states have followed political leaderships which lacked the wisdom and courage to make peace and which were too often tempted to demonize and to de-humanize their ‘enemies’. The Israeli peace movement has been unable to force an end to the occupation of the West Bank and to daily violence and repression which is necessary to sustain it – although it came close. The Palestinian peace camp has so far been unable to stop those who speak in the name of Palestine from killing Jews and from aspiring to kill all the Jews.
The childish politics of boycott glorifies the ‘good’ nationalism of the ‘oppressed’ against the ‘bad’ nationalism of the ‘oppressor’. What we need now is a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan politics which supports those who fight for peace and against racism in all nations and which seeks a just compromise between Israel and Palestine. We should not support those who dream only of all-out victory for one nation or the other. We should not encourage Palestinians to believe that their freedom can only be achieved by totally eradicating and destroying the ‘evil’ of ‘Zionism’. We need to work for a just and achievable peace, not for an impossible, absolute victory for one nationalism over the other.
The boycott campaign relied on a number of ways of articulating its essentialist political binary of good state / bad state. Israel was said to be essentially apartheid or nazi or imperialist or racist. We need a language to talk about Israel and Palestine which does not demonize one side and infantilize the other.
This boycott campaign has come close to destroying our union. The lawyers tell us that it exposed the union to mortal legal threats. It divided the union and it made the union a place which was inhospitable to those Jews who were not extreme anti-Zionists. Hundreds of Jews (and others) have been driven out of our union in the last four years, or dissuaded from joining in the first place. But we need an academic union. We need to fight for the wages and conditions of lecturers and teachers, to oppose the exploitation of people on part-time and temporary contracts; we need to fight for education in Britain. We need to re-unite the union and defend the system, which still exists, whereby universities and colleges across the country are forced to negotiate with the union as a whole.
We need greater clarity on the norms of democratic and academic freedoms. Academic freedom is not something which should be lightly sacrificed for an instrumental end. Those who argued that we should put an end to academic freedom in Israel for so long as the occupation limits academic freedom in Palestine were, in my view, 180° wrong. Academic freedom in Israel should have been bolstered and nurtured, and mobilized against challenges to academic freedom in Palestine. Academic freedom is not to be sacrificed; it is in itself a mode of struggle against those who deny such freedom and against material conditions which limit such freedom.
There will be some people who supported the boycott campaign who will persist with their demonization and their conspiracy theory. They will claim that ‘well-funded’ ‘lobbies’ defeated them; they will claim that British law or British lawyers are part of the ‘Israel Lobby’; they will claim that the leadership of UCU ‘sold out’ the ‘rank and file’. In truth the rank and file of the union was mobilizing. Hundreds of UCU members had rallied to the ‘Campaign for a UCU ballot’ within a week hof it being set up. Union members up and down the country were part of the Engage network to oppose the boycott campaign. A repeat of the AUT members’ revolt of 2005 was imminent, where the union was rescued from the grip of a small coterie of Israel-hating activists by open debate and by the insistence of ordinary union members on having their say.
Even the Israel-demonizing, George Galloway supporting, Socialist Worker Party now opposes the boycott campaign. It recognizes that ‘the boycott is an issue which divides critics of Israel’ and that ‘the boycott would almost certainly be heavily defeated’ in a democratic ballot of UCU members. ‘We should make it clear now,’ wrote Alex Callinicos in Socialist Worker, ‘that we do not intend to propose an actual boycott of any Israeli academic institutions’.
Some boycotters will persist even after their boycott has been widely recognized, morally, legally and politically, as a counterproductive and racist proposal. But the vast majority of UCU members will take this opportunity to rescue our union, to make it again into a union for all of its members and to unite us around fighting for education and around fighting for justice and academic freedom across the world. Jew-hunts are now a thing of the past in UCU.