A critique of Israel's policies, particularly as a country involved in a violent occupation, is necessary. But this boycott isn't a critique - it's an inarticulate attack on Israel's very existence. It is from this position that many of the following arguments emerge.
Unions should be able to carry out what union members vote for.
Seeking legal advice was basic union governance. After Motion 30 was passed a number of lawyers offered their services gratis to future boycotted Israeli academics. For Sally Hunt "our first priority has always been to keep the union, and its members, safe during what has been a very difficult time".
If members had been aware of the legal opinion in May 2007, Motion 30 (the motion proposing this boycott campaign) would almost certainly have fallen.
This is a "most astonishing and self-imposed gagging order on a trade union".
The claim of boycotters that they have been 'gagged' is, as UCU Trustee Fawzi Ibrahim put it, "a myth". On October 1st his letter in the Guardian named the two lawyers - Anthony Lester QC and Anthony White QC - who had provided independent advice.
“Both were at pains to emphasise that their advice "does not mean that the union cannot in any circumstances organise meetings or internal discussions relating to international issues of interest to their members."”Which is why the speaking tour is going ahead and the debate is still on too. Nobody is stopping us discussing ways to support Palestinians. That said, pro-boycott members have fallen silent since an actual boycott was ruled out.
Ask enough lawyers and you'll get the answer you want.
The SFC members who have seen the advice are from the left of the Union – the section from which most of the boycott support is drawn. So the insinuation that the lawyer, or choice of lawyer, was biased is unfounded.
Despite their differences about the boycott, the SFC approved the advice unanimously and in a statement to the membership described it as "clear and unequivocal", "authoritative and unusually robust".
Lord Lester QC founded the Commission for Racial Equality and is particularly well-placed to advise in this area. He can take a large part of the credit for British human rights law. It is cynical of boycott campaigners to seek further legal advice, presumably to provide them with the answer they want.
The advice throws our Boycott and Greylisting Policy into confusion. We no longer know whom, or even whether, we can boycott.
The question about whether or not the union can boycott or greylist the institutions of any state, though valid, does not come to bear on whether or not UCU should take its lawyers' advice in this case. The boycott proposal was directly discriminatory against Israelis. Members who want a boycott of Israel are not for boycotting the academics in all states which abuse human rights but only in Jewish states which abuse human rights.
It's worth noting that the Policy on International Greylisting and Boycotts, passed nearly unanimously at the May 2007 Congress, had already been "thrown into confusion" by being incompatible with the boycott campaign Resolution 30, passed at the same Congress. The policy requires boycotts to have a trigger - in this case a "request from a legitimate organisation within the state ... in question". But Israel didn't submit a request and consquently Resolution 30 is in contravention of the union's own policy.
The verbatim advice the SFC received needs to be published so that it can be open to critical scrutiny.
The legal opinion was a bolt from the blue for many members, including a number of branch secretaries and chairs and even NEC members. Many feel very aggravated that they were not included in decision making even to the extent of being briefed about who was providing the advice and when the SFC would report. Some have demonstrated this frustration by signing a rapidly scrambled and confused petition titled "No Gag on Debate in UCU" which condemns the unseen advice out of hand.
It isn't unusual for clients representing organisations to withhold verbatim legal advice from the public domain, since the discussions between lawyer and client are often sensitive. That said everybody would like to see as much of the legal advice as possible, or to be given an explanation about why it is being withheld.
However, the insistence that the advice must be scrutinised seems perverse considering that a few days earlier the Socialist Worker Party, the driving force behind the boycott, had realised public opinion was against them suddenly backed away from it.
We shouldn't just mindlessly obey the law - imagine if the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Suffragettes or Martin Luther King had done that.
UCU isn't a voluntary grouping dedicated to a specific cause like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, it's a trade union with a broad brief and a responsibility to its members. Boycotting Israeli academia is a marginal concern - UCU has a lot on its plate and this is no time for quixotic behaviour.
Certainly there are causes worth breaking laws and risking unions for - but it's the approach which is under scrutiny here. Boycott is an abjectly simplistic response to the conflict, doesn't help Palestinians, and is probably the worst choice of several alternatives for expressing solidarity. Solidarity with Palestinians is a good cause - boycotting Israel, on the other hand, is certainly not worth UCU getting taken to court for.
The law we assume the lawyers drew on is anti-discrimination, pro-union law - so the alacrity with which boycotters jumped to rubbish the advice is untoward. Moreover UCU's own Aims and Objectives include 2.5:
"To oppose actively all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination whether on the grounds of sex, race, ethnic or national origin, religion, colour, class, caring responsibilities, marital status, sexuality, disability, age, or other status or personal characteristic"This boycott campaign was reined in because either it or the boycott discriminated directly against Israelis and indirectly against Jews, and was unlawful in this.
"This is the typical response of the Israeli lobby which will do anything to avoid debating the real issue". It's just another "well-funded Zionist campaign".
As Shalom Lappin observes, the "hint at the dark workings of an illicit lobby waiting in the wings to bankrupt the union with expensive legal action is unmistakable here". "Well-funded" is an adjective with a lot of (no pun intended) currency at the moment, particularly when associated with ' Jews', 'Zionists' and 'Israelis'. 'Zionist', though used here as a dirty word in the same way 'apartheid' is a dirty word, is not a dirty word. The hint that those who oppose the boycott are people who support the right of Jews to a state of their own (political Zionists) is probably largely true, and there is nothing wrong with people who recognise the implications of this boycott for Israel's ongoing existence organising against the boycott with any lawful means at their disposal.
The insinuation that people only oppose the boycott because they are unconditional supporters of Israel is a classic piece of diversity denial. It ignores the energetic criticism many anti-boycotters (including Baruch Kimmerling, Sari Nusseibeh and others) have levelled at Israel's government and policies, as well as the many other reasons - union time, energy and money, academic freedom, and not least the fact that partipating in Israel's research is beneficial to us - to oppose the boycott.
But we have excellent anti-racist credentials. Anti-semitism, once again, is being used to divert attention from the sufferings of the Palestinian people.
Anti-semitism is increasing and this has been picked up by a UK Parliamentary Inquiry. To pre-empt a response which UCU has already made to this observation, the increase in anti-semitism exists irrespective of the increase in Islamophobia or violence against Palestinians - these are both real and urgent but neither come to bear on the fact that anti-semitism is increasing.
UCU doesn't acknowledge this, and helped anti-semitism when it passed Motion 30 last May. Motion 30 included the clause "criticism of Israel cannot be construed as antisemitic" although this is clearly untrue - criticism about Israel about the occupation in ways which are anti-semitic is both possible and widespread.
Legal threats are now a danger to the whole trade union movement.
It wasn't undemocratic or managerial for the SFC to seek legal advice - it had to ensure that the proposed boycott could sidestep legal pitfalls. Members are right to be concerned about union autonomy and union democracy, but it would be a mistake to assume that this legal advice and the SFC's decision to follow it constitute a precedent that will be wielded against members in the future.
Pro-boycotters who still think there's a boycott campaign to fight are saying that its cowardly to take notice of legal advice. So what exactly what is the role of the law here? Would they feel it 'undemocratic' for boycotted individuals to bring actions under anti-discrimination law against UCU? What would those who oppose this advice have the union do - repeal human rights
law? Maybe reform the democratic structures of the union in order to remove any sense of legal and financial responsibility?
Anti-boycotters should recognise that the only way to defeat the boycott is to reinstate the debate and apply democratic process - namely get mandate Congress delegates to vote against it.
Some people in and around the union see this boycott debate as a good way to 'activate' the membership. The outcome of this is that calls for a ballot have been energetically opposed and anti-boycott members are instead expected to make ourselves available (and the last London regional meeting took place on a Saturday) to participate in these perennial bitter, futile arguments, put up with being painted as racists, conspiracists, shroud-wavers, liars and - what to pro-boycotters is probably the worst crime of all - right wing, or else forfeit any opportunity to influence policy. Even if it were less unpleasant than it is, we all have better things to do than debate boycotting Israel for the rest of our working lives.
Besides, if this cherished debate is supposed to turn out as policy - i.e. be resolutionary - then there are two possible outcomes. One is that the pro-boycotters succeed in passing a resolution which excludes Israeli academia from academic debate. This is an untenable position for anyone who really values debate. The alternative is that the boycott idea is defeated in argument and abandoned and of the two that's the alternative real pro-debaters have to support. Of course, it makes no sense to reinstate a debate in order to 'properly' overturn a proposal to deny Israeli academia precisely that thing - participation in academic debate. Rather than dogmatically championing debate for its own sake it would far better just to recognise this one for what it really is - a debate about shutting down debate.
It would be irresponsible to use this boycott campaign to make a point about union democracy when nobody - not pro-boycott activists and not the Executive - has ever argued that the majority of members want this boycott. Five years of the same debate has not yet 'activated' the membership. There's a gulf between the active union we want and the activists' union we have currently that this boycott campaign is simply never going to bridge.
Meanwhile it alarms and provokes Jews, turns off most of the membership and costs the union dearly in time, money and energy - all in return for precisely nothing of use to the Palestinians.
What about the Palestinians?
For good ideas about real solidarity with Palestinian students and academics Jon Pike’s speech at Leeds University is an excellent place to start.