The backlash against the decision by a union of British university lecturers to sever ties with two Israeli universities began almost as soon as the controversial motion was passed.
A wave of condemnation met the decision by the 48,000-member Association of University Teachers (AUT) to sever links with Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, following a resolution narrowly passed at the group’s annual conference April 22. Within days, a half-dozen AUT members resigned in protest, and more were expected to follow suit.
Britain’s Jewish community was outraged at the move to censure Haifa, because of alleged discrimination against a radical left-wing professor, and against Bar-Ilan, because of the support it provides to a West Bank college. The community quickly mobilized, with the Board of Deputies, the representative body of Anglo Jewry, announcing the formation of a Campaign Group for Academic Freedom to coordinate activity across a range of community groups in hopes of overturning the decision.
Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said he was “most distressed” by the motion, which he called “a sad day for British universities. The AUT has betrayed the academic principles it supposedly represents.”
Opposition also came from outside the Jewish community, with British newspapers united in their condemnation. The Times of London described the step as “a mockery of academic freedom, a biased and blinkered move that is as ill-timed as it is perverse,” warning that it could provide an excuse for increased anti-Semitism.
A spokesman for Universities U.K., a higher-education action group, said that the organization “condemns the resolution from AUT, which is inimical to academic freedom, including the freedom of academics to collaborate with other academics.”
One of the initiators of the motion — a weaker version of one that failed to pass the AUT last year — was Birmingham University lecturer Sue Blackwell, a long-time pro-Palestinian campaigner.
Blackwell told JTA that she had received many messages of support for the campaign against “apartheid” Israel.
But the motion has proved to be embarrassing not only for Blackwell’s own university — which immediately distanced itself from the boycott — but for her union. It rapidly became clear that implementing the boycott could put universities in direct contravention of their equal opportunity policies. AUT General Secretary Sally Hunt issued directions to members to take no action until further notice.
“The national executive will issue guidance to local associations on the implementation of the boycotts of the two Israeli universities in due course,” Hunt said. “Until this guidance is issued, it is stressed that members should be advised to not take any action in relation to a boycott which would place them in breach of their contract of employment.”
The British campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions is an issue that has refused to go away. It was initiated by an April 2002 letter in the Guardian newspaper written by a husband-and-wife pair of British Jewish academics, Steven and Hilary Rose.
Signed by 123 scholars, the letter proposed that since “many national and European cultural and research institutions regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts,” it was time to declare a moratorium on any further support “unless and until Israel abides by U.N. resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Coming at the time amid Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s West Bank incursion following months of increasing terrorist attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians, the proposed boycott sparked a fierce international debate, and prompted an online counterpetition that quickly gathered support.
Further controversy followed that summer when Mona Baker, a linguistics professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, removed two Israeli scholars, Gideon Toury and Miriam Shlesinger, from her journal of translation studies.
Then, in autumn 2003, Oxford University took disciplinary action against pathology professor Andrew Wilkie after he refused to accept a doctorate application from a Tel Aviv university student. Citing Israel’s “gross human rights abuses” against Palestinians, Wilkie told Amit Duvshani, “I am sure you are perfectly nice at a personal level, but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army.”
The issue reappeared last December at an international conference at the School of African and Oriental Studies at London University on strategies to resist Israeli “apartheid.”
Ronnie Fraser, a math lecturer at London’s Barnet College and chair of the Academic Friends of Israel, said pro-Israel views have become increasingly unfashionable among the British intelligentsia.
The boycott movement also may have been boosted by the complacency of pro-Israel groups, which felt gratified by widespread opposition to the concept of academic sanctions.
“They thought the boycott had gone away,” Fraser said, pointing to the approximately 1,000 signatories to the original boycott letter, compared with around 15,000 signatures on the one rebutting it. Fraser believes the fact that the AUT motion was heard on Passover eve made it difficult for Jewish members to attend.
Other circumstances surrounding the vote have been the subject of scrutiny. Requests for outside speakers to make the case against the boycott were rejected, and there was no time made available for debate.
“The resolutions are as perverse in their content as in the way they were debated and adopted,” said an Israeli Embassy spokesman in London. “The AUT ignored overwhelming academic and public rejection of the proposed motions.”
Moves already are under way to collect the signatures of 25 AUT members to put forward a motion demanding that the boycott decision be overturned.