The campaign to discriminate against Israeli academics is illegal, and dead.
It has been defeated ideologically, politically, morally and legally.
And it all came to a crunch last week. On Monday, Jimmy Donaghey and I launched Members for a Ballot – a website campaign for a ballot on the question of a boycott of Israel. We quickly gained support from many branches and members, from pre and post 92 institutions, from HE and FE sector. This wasn’t a surprise – in polls at Oxford, Imperial and LSHTM, around 90% of the membership backed a ballot.
On Tuesday, it became clear that the main organisation that acted as a shell for those who have been pushing for a boycott – UCU Left – was falling apart over the issue: two leading members said that they were in favour of a ballot – we just needed to formulate the question.
On Wednesday – out comes Socialist Worker. Now, you might think that the antics of this small group are of no concern to academics and trade unionists in Britain – but you’d be wrong. Through UCU Left, the SWP has a very strong influence – for now - on the executive of our union. But on Wednesday, the SWP changed their line on the academic boycott. They conceded that they were heading for a massive defeat in a ballot – and admitted that they were desperate to avoid one. The momentum behind the call for ballot was growing – even some boycotters were backing it. Members of the Communist Party – also influential in our union - and lots of NEC members were on board.
So something very odd happened: the SWP tried to cut a deal. They tried to stop a ballot by promising not to propose a boycott at Congress in 2008. In doing so, they cut loose Sue Blackwell, Steven and Hilary Rose, for the sake of maintaining their political position on the NEC.
It was a weird and grotesque move.
Our union has been dominated by this issue since its inception, as the boycotters, with the SWP pushed and pushed to get it on the agenda. Then after marching the troops up to the top of the hill, last Wednesday, they marched them down again.
They pushed and pushed to open a debate on a proposal that, they then announced, they weren’t going to back.
People give the SWP too much respect in our union. After last Wednesday, people will point and laugh. But Wednesday constituted the political defeat of the boycott.
Then Friday. At the union’s strategy and finance committee, legal advice about the boycott was presented with such force that the pro-boycotters caved in completely. The boycott is illegal. It’s discriminatory. It’s off the agenda. We are, of course, still free to discuss Israel and Palestine, and to discuss ways of working with both Israeli and Palestinian academics. We are not at liberty, as a union, to pursue a policy of discrimination.
This is all good.
Over the next few weeks it’s time to rethink and to refocus the direction of the UCU. I want to look at three areas in which we can move forward. First, generating real support for our colleagues in Israel and Palestine, second, democratising the union, and third, fighting anti-Semitism.
At last, it’s possible to get serious about real solidarity. Some people thought solidarity amounted to saying pompously ‘I’m not going to review this book, because the author is at Tel Aviv University.’ That was nonsense – discrimination, not solidarity. I want to raise some issues about support and solidarity: practical issues. I want to look at some examples of what can be done, and what can’t be done.
There is a real need for support and solidarity with our colleagues. Some of us at Engage are already pursuing lots of the initiatives, but more academics and trade unionist need to take these up.
First: The UCU can link up with organisations like Gisha and Hamoked. Engage worked with Gisha to oppose the restriction placed on Palestinians form studying at Israeli universities. We publicised and campaigned around the case of Sawsan Salameh, prevented from taking up her PhD place at Hebrew University Jerusalem. There are, right now, restrictions placed on the travel of Palestinian students, and in some cases these are preventing them from taking up places at UK Universities.
We could not do this sort of work, as a union, before. We could not say a simple thing: that it’s wrong to discriminate in access to education merely on the basis of nationality. Now, we can say this, and in due time, we might even get a hearing. The fact that our voice may easily be dismissed in Israel at present is the fault of the boycotters. Right now it is important to raise the issue of the Bradford student from Gaza who is prevented from taking up his place because of the restrictions placed on exit and travel.
Academics and activists can put their hands in their pockets – and give their time and energies to:
Olive Tree Trust, which brings together Palestinian and Israeli students to study at City University in London.
Durham Palestine Educational Trust
We can support Football for Peace. At the moment, Brighton University’s contribution to the debate over Israel and Palestine is associated with Tom Hickey’s support for a discriminatory exclusion. But that need not be the case: Lots of serious people at Brighton – who don’t get on to the television as much as Tom Hickey, work in Northern Galilee using football training as a way of forging links between Arab and Jewish Israelis.
Academics and trade unionists can support the Medical school at Al Quds through FQMS. Dozens of British academics, especially - but not only - medics are members of the Foundation. It also draws much of its support from the Palestinian diaspora in London.
The Foundation provides teaching, and examiners on the medicine courses at Al Quds University and its Abu Dis campus. The Foundation provides funding for Palestinian students to train over here, and covers travel costs for British medics to go over to Al Quds. In particular, some of the teaching is at a distance, by email and video conferencing, including with students in Gaza.
The Foundation gets on with things: it selects postgraduate students, organises teaching and accommodation, financing particular med and pre-med needs. I'm sure there are some people who are members of the foundation who favour some sort of academic boycott, and there are many others, such as me, who think an academic boycott is a bad idea. But in practice, these sorts of disagreements are unimportant in supporting the Medical school - in fact, they are ignored. I'll give one just one example.
At the AGM, there was a particular issue raised about supporting a medic working in Nablus who wanted to train in paediatric endocrinology. Untreated diabetes is quite widespread on the West Bank, and can lead to permanent serious debilitation and brain damage - and there is simply no specialist treatment available. The Foundation was asked to support this guy on a 9 month training period in the UK. This had been initiated by one of the world's leading specialists in paediatric endocrinology: Prof Ze’ev Hochberg, based at Haifa University. The idea is that the UK training will follow on from a nine month placement at Haifa University working with Hochberg.
Despite the fact that this obviously involves institutional collaboration between UK academics and the University of Haifa, it was plain that this was a positive proposal that the foundation should support. There was no question of invoking a boycott, excluding Hochberg from conferences, research collaboration, or journals. To raise those sort of suggestions would simply indicate a lack of seriousness about the work of the foundation, and a lack of seriousness about supporting Palestinian medics.
It’s good that the UCU has decided to push the initative of Richard Kuper and others: Books for Palestine. We should do this seriously. This doesn’t mean passing on the cast-offs of the 68 generation. We don’t want dog-eared copies of For Marx, or Lineages of the Absolutist State. It’s up to date science books, nursing and medical related texts, up to date Information technology books, TEFL and TESL texts, carefully selected. No fobbing of with cast-offs here. Books for Palestine will need its own website – and in the meantime, contact Richard Kuper via FFIPP.
Fifth We understand that the TUC is considering launching a fund to support Palestinian Trade Unions: this should attract support from trade unionist in the UK: Palestinian trade unions operate under tremendously difficult conditions – they face the restrictions of the occupation, physical attacks, particularly but not exclusively from Hamas.
In all this work it should be possible for UCU members to work together. It should be possible to have a fruitful dialogue between people involved in such projects – from Engage, from FFIPP and even from BRICUP and the PSC. (Well, OK, maybe some people need to drop their legal threats first.)
I look forward to that dialogue taking place. Where should this fit in to the UCU’s international dimension? The work will need to extend through Education International and be linked to a policy consistently in defence of academic freedom through the world. The UCU should support scholars at risk throughout the world. It should have a – strictly limited - ‘foreign policy’ around which the 120,000 members can unite. UCU should have a partisan policy – in this respect - it should be partisan for academics and scholars facing oppression. Here, the example of the US organisation Scholars at Risk is a model. It needs to support academic freedom, in concrete and practical ways, everywhere in the world, with the freedom of scholars in Burma, China, Iraq and Iran, and Palestine and Israel and the US and the UK: it should support, not deny academic freedom. It should have a democratic policy based on universal principles that members can wholeheartedly support.
Democratise the Union
But we also need to democratise the union. On two occasions, in 2005 and 2007 our union has been badly damaged by the overrepresentation of a small number of obsessive and divisive activists, who have exploited its out-of-date decision making processes to pursue their discriminatory agenda.
Lots of people in the union argue that it should be an active democracy – lots of participation from members, lots of discussion, and debate, lots of involvement in decision making. I agree with those aspirations. But a group of union members have been for some time arguing for an ‘activ-ists’ democracy – and the ‘-ist’ makes a big difference. This idea involves the exclusion of ordinary members from decision-making in the union. It works in a number of different ways. First, they don’t want ballots. Second, they want decisions made at the Congress by representatives of the branches, except – here’s the catch – the representatives aren’t required to represent anyone. Third, the ‘activist democrats’ set up ‘regional committees’ - this means that super–activists who are prepared to give up their Saturdays get a much bigger input into the decision making process – they want the right to send in motions that no branch has passed.
Here’s an example: the London regional committee met last Saturday. It passed a resolution very critical of the supposed gagging of the union. The resolution also attacked the idea of a ballot. (I know that Alex Callinicos thinks that the call for a ballot – from the ‘Zionist camp’ – is a sneaky trap. But then that’s us sneaky Zionists all over. We repeatedly pull these underhand moves like asking for a vote.)
Fair enough. I don’t agree – I pushed for a ballot. But it looks as if London members, represented by the London regional committee don’t think a ballot is a good idea. It looks like Jimmy and I never managed to persuade London members.
Except that’s rubbish. We know that 90% of members at Imperial and 90% at LSHTM back a ballot. Now, there’s a clue to what’s going on here in the name of those two institutions: ICL. LSHTM. But the super activists of the “London region” – familiar names from the pages of Socialist Worker - are highly critical of the call for a ballot. We know, then, that London regional UCU is out of line with the membership – we know that it’s an unrepresentative group, full of the usual suspects.
Activist Democrats are pushing for these largely unrepresentative regional committees to have increased voting power.
Meanwhile, the overworked, stressed-out, time-poor members of the union are becoming less and less engaged in the decision making of the union – 85% failed to vote in the elections for the general-secretary. You can get elected (should you choose to) to the national executive with a around five hundred votes - less than 0.5% - out of a claimed membership of 110,000.
Most branches struggle for a quorum, and loads of branches don’t have a lecture hall big enough to take the branch membership. At the OU - a great branch, democratically run - we have a membership of a few thousand. But that’s OK: we rarely get more than a couple of dozen to a meeting. Again, less than 1%. We’re one of the biggest branches and we had a cross campus ballot for our congress delegates.
So there’s a two headed crisis in the UCU a crisis of engagement, and a crisis of democratic legitimacy in my union. What’s more, everyone – absolutely everyone in the union - knows this. It’s just not done to say so in public.
What should left wingers and democrats do in this situation? It’s not rocket science. Lower the barriers to participation, include the membership, consult and involve without the requirement that people give up their Saturdays, or get to every campus meeting. Use email, electronic consultation, to get to the members – after all, that’s how we work. Organise membership votes to give the members a say in how their union behaves.
It’s clear to everyone that in a membership ballot the proposals for a boycott would have been been rejected. It’s pretty clear too, that congress is not representative. 70 branches were absent from Congress 2007. Dozens of delegates ignored their branch policy. Only one out of fifteen FE branches in Ireland was represented at Congress.
In 2005 and 2007, we have organised a democratic fight back by ordinary members of the union. In 2005, we called for a democratic Special Council of the AUT. Led a special council of the AUT, to have a proper debate about the proposals to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan.
This year, last Monday, we launched a democratic campaign for a ballot of the membership on the proposals for and academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
In both cases, directing a democratic campaign on the boycotting proposal has meant its defeat. This year it was a little bizarre – the defeat for the boycott in some respects came last Wednesday not last Friday.
In the meantime, we have been unable to prevent the boycotters from doing serious damage to academic life, and to our union, from the annual circus that has achieved nothing for Palestine. This must never happen again. The boycotters sought to exclude members from the decision making process of the union. The boycotters opposed both of these democratic campaigns – they opposed the campaign for a Special Council, and they opposed the campaign for a ballot.
They told us that academics in the UK should take their lead from the largely self selected delegates to UCU congress. They said that that the members were uniformed, or too inactive, or otherwise unworthy of a vote. The UCU should wake up to the internet age. It should realise that, on contentious issues, and with low member involvement, that the idea of a delegate democracy is a recipe for disaster. Union members don’t congregate in mass meetings – they sit in front of screens and get emails. A union needs to work out a way to represent its members properly.
UCU rightly bangs on about overwork, stress, work life balance, the overwhelming and increasing burden of QA regimes and the RAE. UCU members are time poor.
Some in the union then turn around and say – well, unless you give up four days in May, you’re not a proper trade unionist and you don’t deserve a say. They exploit the time poverty of UCU members to maintain a thoroughly unrepresentative political culture in the union.
Enough of this.
The Electoral Reform Society have produced a paper distributed at the TUC, In it they publish the results of survey evidence about electronic voting: amongst the sort of jobs that UCU represents, nearly 50% of respondents said they were more likely to vote in NEC elections and members ballots on industrial action if they could vote electronically. If that’s right, we can massively increase the participation rates in the union’s decision making at a stroke. At present, it seems this is ruled out by statute, and this is one law that we should look to be changed.
But we also need to change the culture in the union don’t want to attend endless meetings to discuss discrinatory proposals.
The left is disgracing itself by ignoring left anti-Semitism. The academic boycott movement was not stopped by anti-union laws, but by anti-discrimination laws, laws that we should support.
It’s no good anymore to cite the ridiculous slogan that "it is not anti-semitic to criticise Israel." We had that from our own union, in its silly response to the All party Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism.
This is something we’ve argued out time and again. Last Christmas we warned the union about this – in a lengthy critique of its response. Perhaps we were at fault in not pressing hard enough on this: but we have explained time and time again why the boycott was discriminatory. "in effect, if not in intent..." is a phrase that I should have as a short cut on my laptop.
Given some of the comments on the union e-list, I’m not sure how long I can maintain my official agnosticism on intent.
Instead of listening, and thinking things through, instead of being serious, trade unionists react with wounded pride whenever the question of antisemitism is raised. Enough of this. Of course, it isn’t necessarily anti-semitic to criticise Israel, and no-one serious says that it is. But some criticism of Israel is suffused with anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism on the left is real, and obvious to anyone who has their eyes open. It exists in two ways – which interplay and interact in complex ways: demonising rhetoric and proposals for effectively racist exclusions. Now we know that such exclusions are wrong, unjust, and illegal – whatever the motivation. We’ve demonstrated time and time again that the call to isolate Israelis from the international research community is discriminatory, whatever its motivation. It rests on an unwarranted exceptionalism. It doesn’t apply a common standard. It singles out Israel and Israelis for special harm in the absence of any morally relevant property that is shared by the group harmed, and not shared by others.
And here is why last Friday’s ruling is so important.
The boycott proposals are in breach of antidiscrimination law. When we argue this, and when we criticise antisemitic discourse in the union, campaigners for democracy, like me and Jimmy, and David Hirsh have been smeared as ‘rich’ or ‘rotten’ Zionists, we belong to the ‘Zionist Camp’ we are ‘Israeli apologists’ because we oppose discrimination, we are ‘Zionist scabs’ because we ask for a ballot of the members.
It’s been a bit of an epiphany for us. Stand up for academic freedom, for a members ballot, for democratic discussion, against racism, against the boycott, and you gets attacked as rich Zionists. Jimmy, David and I are not rich. We’re not Zionists, but so what if we were? Two of us are not Jewish – but so what if we were? We’re trade unionists, academics, and democrats. The union needs to look seriously at the sort of discriminatory proposal that it has entertained for too long and the rhetoric that it has sometimes seemed tacitly to endorse. It needs to look again at the disgustingly bigoted discourse that has taken place on the ‘activists e-list’ of the union.
At the beginning of this whole affair, I thought that the union that I was a member of, the AUT, has generally acted in a progressive way, protecting me against management, and defending my wages and conditions, didn’t need any intensive involvement. It got things roughly right. But the union needs democratic renewal – it needs involvement from its members and it needs a thorough democratisation – as one way of fighting discrimination.
I want to say two final things. First, about Sally Hunt, and second, about the Left.
Say what you like about Sally Hunt – and people do - she knows and represents her members. Ever since the boycott issue was raised in the AUT, she has known and said two things: that a big majority of members has opposed the boycott, and that a big majority of members want the union to direct its energies to defending and advancing the interests of its members, not engaging in gesture politics. She has experienced two democratic upheavels of the membership, from the sharp end. She has been the object of vitriolic attack from the likes of the SWP. She’s had offensive emails drop into her inbox from around the world – protesting at the boycott proposals - proposals she disagreed with. She has defended the union against legal jeopardy brought down on it by the boycotters. She has struggled to keep the union on a sensible course, fighting it from being derailed. Sally is also a principled supporter and defender of both Palestinian and Israeli academics and trade unionists. She leads a tremendously argumentative union – and that’s as it should be: we’re not going to agree about everything. But Sally Hunt deserves our support.
Lastly, this is a time for the left to take a look at itself. In a recent copy of the New Statesman, John Pilger made much of the "inexorable rise" of the boycott Israel movement. His article was wrong on many counts – and it’s just a tad out of date now - but it’s an interesting indicator of the political and intellectual laziness of parts of the left. And it’s an indication of a way in which the Left faces a big question now. There are several versions of this question facing academics and trade-unionists who supported the boycott. How did large sections of the left manage to say, for so long, and so complacently: ‘it’s not anti-Semitic to criticise Israel’ – when what was being talked about was a discriminatory exclusion? How could it have pursued a campaign that would have made Jewish Studies departments in the UK non-union – and thought that this was an answer to the blockade of Gaza?
This is the question for those on the left who supported an academic boycott left.
How did you manage to mistake a campaign of discriminatory exclusions for a campaign of solidarity?
It’s only when we can get an answer to that question that we will be able to establish a properly anti-racist culture on the left, a properly democratic trade union movement – and a movement in the UK for a lasting peace and justice between two nations – two states: Palestine and Israel.
Speech to Leeds anti-boycott activists October 2nd 2007,at Leeds University, by Jon Pike
Added by David Hirsh on October 04, 2007 03:40:14 PM.