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We can defeat the boycott movement - David HIrsh
Added by David Hirsh on May 30, 2006 02:33:51 PM.
This piece is cross posted at Comment Is Free.
The lecturers' union Natfhe now has a policy of encouraging British academics to blacklist colleagues with links to Israeli universities who hold beliefs with which it does not agree. These include a number of Natfhe and AUT members.

If a North Korean mathematician wants to come to a conference in Britain, we will be happy to discuss maths with her; we will not demand that she repudiates her state's constitutional claim that North Korea is a socialist paradise on earth. This is how it should be. Discuss integral calculus during the day; discuss politics over dinner; help her to defect, if she wants.

But if an Israeli wants to come to the same conference, she would now have to sign a statement saying that she repudiates Israel's "apartheid policies". If she refuses, she won't be allowed to attend the conference, to have her journal articles considered for publication or to remain part of the global academic community.

Natfhe does not have a consistent policy on human rights abuses or the infringements of academic freedom that go with them. It has a policy of punishing Israeli academics for such abuses carried out by their state, but of not punishing any other academics on the planet for similar and worse abuses.

Natfhe conference passed this new policy on Monday: 106 delegates voted for, 92 voted against or abstained. This was an activist decision that did not flow from discussion in the colleges. Besides which, Natfhe ceases to exist on Wednesday, when it merges with the AUT to form the University and College Union, (UCU). The Natfhe leadership clearly stated its belief that any policy passed at this conference would not bind the new union. The AUT has a clear anti-boycott policy, arrived at after extensive discussion in the universities and a four-hour debate of the council. The UCU must state immediately and unambiguously that it does not have any policy to boycott or to "invite" or encourage a boycott. The UCU must state immediately and unambiguously that it will not "be advised" by the Natfhe conference decision.

A Pyrrhic victory is so called after Pyrrhus, who, having suffered heavy losses in defeating the Romans, said to those sent to congratulate him: "Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone."

Monday's victory for the boycotters did them serious damage, even though it will also have given them a boost in confidence and morale: it makes them look unserious and unsophisticated. They backed the McCarthyite test even after the Palestinian boycott campaign had repudiated it; their policy is incoherent and ambiguous - it is not clear, for example, whether it relates only to Israelis or to anybody that refuses to denounce Israel as an apartheid state; their policy also contradicts the UCU's guarantee to oppose discrimination on the grounds of nationality.

The boycotters have chosen to split our new union by backing a policy of discriminating against some of our colleagues - at a moment during a dispute when we ought to have maximum unity. The coterie of Israel-haters in Natfhe was more interested in having a last hurrah than in thinking about a positive, effective and intelligent policy on Palestine and Israel for the new union.

Another sense in which Monday's decision is an own goal for the boycotters is that it will kick the anti-boycott campaign into new life. We now all know that we are going to have to endure this discussion for another year and that it will dominate the first conference of the UCU next spring.

Those who oppose the boycott campaign - because they believe in liberal, democratic values and academic freedom, because they are worried about anti-semitism, because they believe the unions should have consistent policy, because they believe it destroys effective solidarity with the Palestinian and Israeli peace movements or because they think that the culture of portraying Israel as the greatest evil on the planet is dangerous - those who oppose the boycott will be forced to organise effectively and energetically.

After the boycott proposal was defeated in the AUT, it was said that the anti-boycott campaign was a hugely powerful and well-organised "lobby". Monday proved conclusively the foolishness of this claim. But Monday will also act as the spur to make sure that trade unionists build just such an effective and organised campaign within the new union.

We are going to have to discuss the issues of boycott, of anti-semitism of McCarthyism and of solidarity in every university and in every college UCU branch. We are going to have to win arguments and we are going to have to make sure that the voices of ordinary academics and teachers are heard. We are going to have to make sure that every branch sends delegates to the first UCU conference ready to defend the basic norms of consistency, anti-racism, solidarity and freedom of speech. This time next year, the UCU conference must make a clear statement: this annual circus must end.

On Monday the boycotters in Natfhe won a real political victory. But it will not mandate a boycott of Israeli academics by British academics and it will not make the boycotters' dream of a McCarthyite political test for "Zionism" come true. Neither will a boycott be the policy of our union after Wednesday. The real battle will come next year.

Many AUT and Natfhe members will be disgusted by what happened on Monday. Many will be temped to tear up their union cards. Many will be tempted to denounce the unions as racist and adolescent organisations. Many will be tempted to try and split or smash up the new union. Many people abroad will look at British academia with contempt because they will believe that the Natfhe decision represents the view of British academics.

Academics need a union, and the UCU is the only one we've got. There is no alternative but to stay and argue and fight. We can win this debate. So don't leave the union; join it, if you are not already a member. Academics must take back their union from the cliques of Israel-haters that seem so keen to destroy it.

One of the critiques of the Euston manifesto project has been that it focuses on the idiots, such as George Galloway and the SWP, and treats the whole of the broad liberal/left as though it is similar. I don't think that this critique is justified because I think that the same "idiot anti-imperialism" that is taken to an absurd extreme by Galloway and the SWP is also well represented amongst more mainstream academic and political currents.

The case of the Natfhe boycott sheds some new light on this discussion. It was the idiots in the SWP that won the vote; even people like Paul Mackney spoke against the boycott. But the interesting thing is that the broad left in Natfhe, which critics claim is unjustly tarred by the Euston brush, was unable, or unwilling, to stop the SWP from winning the day.

David Hirsh

This piece is cross posted at Comment Is Free.

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