Click here to visit the new Engage website!

UCU’s Annual Congress 2008: When is a Boycott Not a Boycott? - MICHAEL YUDKIN and DENIS NOBLE
Added by David Hirsh on June 13, 2008 11:17:25 AM.
UCU’s Annual Congress 2008: When is a Boycott Not a Boycott?  -  MICHAEL YUDKIN and DENIS NOBLEIt’s sometimes said that the job of an ambassador is to lie on behalf of his country, and presumably the job of a Union’s General Secretary is – let’s express this delicately – to put the most favourable gloss possible on the decisions of her Union. On the afternoon of 28 May 2008, immediately after the annual Congress of the University and College Union (UCU) had passed a Motion entitled “Palestine and the Occupation”, Sally Hunt said “Because of the constant misreporting of the motions considered by UCU's Congress, I feel I have to state that we have passed a motion to provide solidarity with the Palestinians, not to boycott Israel or any other country's academic institutions”.

Let’s compare Ms Hunt’s interpretation with what the Motion actually said. It alleged (without evidence) “apparent complicity of most of the Israeli academy” in the occupation, claimed that “criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are [sic] not, as such, anti-semitic” and encouraged members “to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions”. Now, where have we heard something like that before? Oh yes: on 30 May 2007 the annual Congress of the Union passed a Motion which alleged (without evidence) “complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation”, claimed that “criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic” and “encourage[d] members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions”. But those who proposed the 2007 Motion obviously didn’t understand what their own wording meant, because they mistakenly entitled it “Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions”. If only they’d asked Ms Hunt for a more accurate title.

The 2007 Motion drew a storm of criticism from – among many others – HM Government, the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Russell Group of Universities, many University Vice-Chancellors (including the Vice-Chancellor of our own University), and a host of international bodies. During the summer of 2007 the Union decided not to put the boycott into effect until its membership had been balloted. In the end the ballot never took place, but supporters of the boycott admitted that it would have been heavily defeated. Informal polls of UCU members at several institutions returned large majorities against a boycott – among the members of Oxford UCU, 94 % of those who voted were opposed.

The reason why the Union called off the boycott even before balloting its members was that in September 2007 it was advised by Lord Lester QC, one of the foremost human-rights lawyers in the UK, that making a call to boycott Israeli institutions would run a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation, and that the call to boycott was considered to be outside the aims and objects of the UCU. The Union has resisted repeated requests to publish the legal advice and so its details are not known to us; but it must have been unambiguous, since on receiving it the Union’s strategy and finance committee (which included supporters of the boycott) agreed unanimously to inform branches and members that a boycott call would be unlawful and could not be implemented.

To imagine (as we naively did) that that was the end of the matter was to reckon without the obsessional determination of the boycotters. It didn’t take them long to regroup, tweak the wording of their Motion, disguise it with a new title and push it through the National Executive Committee and on to the agenda of the 2008 Congress.

On 28 May 2008, after the not-to-boycott-Israel Motion was passed, Ms Hunt was in expansive mood. “Delegates in Manchester for UCU congress this week have the freedom to debate a whole host of issues. They can do this without worrying about being arrested, beaten and even killed. There are trade unionists around the world that are not so fortunate and we must never take our freedom to debate, whatever the issue, for granted”.

But if the task of a General Secretary is to gloss uncomfortable Motions out of existence and seek to divert her listeners’ attention to other matters, the task of a lawyer is to see though evasion and spin, to construe texts, and to give legal advice. Two eminent barristers, Michael Beloff QC and Pushpinder Saini QC, were asked by Stop The Boycott to advise on the legality of the 2008 Motion. Their Joint Opinion was published about a fortnight before the UCU Congress. The whole document is well worth reading
but a few excerpts will be enough to give the flavour of their Joint Opinion.
“In our view … it would be unlawful for the Union to pass the Motion …The legal objections to the Motion are
a) First, potential breaches by the Union of the Race Relations Act 1976 as amended (“RRA”). If the Motion is passed it would expose Jewish members of the Union to indirect discrimination … Additionally, the Union faces potential liability for acts of harassment on grounds of race or nationality. The substance of the Motion may also involve the Union in becoming accessories to acts of discrimination in an employment context against Israeli academics.

b) Second, the terms of the Motion are outside the powers given to the Union under its rules. Specifically, the Motion calls on its members to undertake acts of harassment and discrimination against others on grounds of national origins … [S]uch acts are specifically prohibited by the Union’s own rules …
“In our view, the Union and its officers are undertaking substantial legal risks if they resolve to pursue the Motion in its current terms …

“We stress that the Union and its membership are fully entitled to exercise their rights to freedom of expression to debate the political issues surrounding [the] Israel/Palestine question. Nothing in this Joint Opinion is intended to suggest that these rights have been curtailed by the Union Rules or general law. However, the rights to freedom of expression … are not limitless, and necessary and proportionate restrictions may be imposed to protect the rights of others than the speaker. Aspects of the motion which are in substance a call to the membership to impose some form of sanction on Israeli academics and/or institutions exceed acceptable limits.”
We have noted before (Oxford Magazine, Noughth Week Trinity Term 2008) how, in their obsessive campaign against Israeli academics, some members of UCU are prepared to disregard the views of the majority of the membership, jettison the universally accepted principles of non-discriminatory interchange among scholars, and divert the Union’s resources away from its core functions of protecting members’ salaries and conditions of employment. (It is reported that the legal advice obtained on the 2007 Motion cost the Union a six-figure sum, and we know that the time of branches up and down the country has been taken up in dealing with this one divisive issue rather than attending to the Union’s core business). We now see that the boycotters are even willing to act in defiance both of the law and of the Union’s own rules.

If the Union is sued, which seems quite possible, the boycotters will no doubt kick up a song and dance about how wrong it is for the law to interfere in their sovereign affairs. At that point let’s bear in mind that what is at issue is not a piece of Thatcherite anti-union legislation, but the Race Relations Act, passed under a Labour government for the protection of ethnic minorities, which every person of good will – not least a trade unionist – would be expected gladly to obey.

Michael Yudkin and Denis Noble, Oxford UCU

A version of this piece also appears in the current edition of the Oxford Magazine.

Also by Michael Yudkin: Is an academic Boycott of Israel Justified?