Thursday, May 31, 2007

Academics express outrage at Israeli boycott

From today's Guardian Unlimited.

Academics express outrage at Israeli boycott

Debbie Andalo
Thursday May 31, 2007

Academics and students today hit back at the decision by
university lecturers to support calls for a boycott of
Israeli institutions.
Yesterday the University and College Union decided by 158
votes to 99 to circulate a motion to all its branches to
discuss calls from Palestinian trade unions for a
"comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all
Israeli academic institutions". The motion is going to
branches for "their information and discussion".
But the decision taken at the inaugural UCU national
conference in Bournemouth was condemned by the Russell group
of research-led universities, the National Union of Students
and organisations with an interest in Israel and academic
free speech.
In a hard-hitting statement, the Russell group "rejected
outright" the boycott call.
Its chairman, Prof Malcolm Grant, who is also president and
provost of University College London, said: "It is a
contradiction in terms and in direct conflict with the
mission of a university.
"It betrays a misunderstanding of the academic mission,
which is founded squarely on freedom of inquiry and freedom
of speech.
"Any institution worthy of the title of university has the
responsibility to protect these values, and it is
particularly disturbing to find an academic union attacking
academic freedom in this way."
Prof Grant promised that its universities "will uphold
academic freedom by standing firm against any boycott that
threatens it".
Meanwhile, the executive director of the International
Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB), Ofir Frankel,
accused the union of allowing itself "to act as a one-sided
player in Middle Eastern politics".
He said: "The IAB is amazed that the extremists that led
their union to such an initiative decided not to discuss the
option to pass this initiative to a vote of all 120,000
members, a decision that could have allowed the majority to
rescue their union from this discriminatory action by
reharnessing the values of academic freedom, discourse and
debate, as their own general secretary suggested."
The chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, Jeremy
Newmark, described the union's decision as "an assault on
academic freedom" that "damages the credibility of British
academia as a whole". He called for the union to organise a
full membership ballot before introducing any boycott.
The decision by the UCU was also condemned by the Academic
Friends of Israel, which accused the union of having "failed
to support the wishes of its membership".
Criticism of the UCU decision also came from student
The president of the National Union of Students, Gemma
Tumelty, said it did not support the principles behind an
academic boycott of Israel because it "undermines the
Israeli academics who support Palestinian rights".
It also "hinders the building of bridges between Israelis
and Palestinians".
She added: "Retaining dialogue on all sides will be crucial
in obtaining a lasting peace in the Middle East.
International academics have a lot to offer higher education
students in the UK and a boycott of this specific country is
extremely worrying.
"We will express our concerns to UCU and we are awaiting
clarification from them on the exact nature of this policy
and its potential impact on students and the academic
There were also reservations about the UCU decision from the
World Union of Jewish Students.
Its chairwoman, Tamar Shchory, a student at Ben Gurion
University in south Israel, said: "In campuses abroad the
climate of hostility towards the state of Israel and Jewish
students is getting stronger.
"It seems like the UCU has chosen a one-sided, not
constructive, position in a very complex and sensitive
matter instead of promoting the basic value of academic
freedom and constructive initiatives."

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