British boycott vote blasted, but will it even have an effect?


LONDON — British Jewish leaders and students are blasting a decision by a British teachers union to recommend a boycott of Israeli academics.

Monday’s vote by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, which forces Israeli academics to “publicly declare their political views and subject them to the scrutiny of British academics, is especially pernicious,” the Board of Deputies of British Jews said in a statement.

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The boycott applies to Israeli lecturers and academic institutions that don’t publicly declare their opposition to Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

The boycott has sparked international outrage among pro-Israel scholars and Jewish groups for being both one-sided and counterproductive, even though its practical ramifications seem limited.

The resolution is being seen as largely symbolic, since it only “invites members to consider their responsibility” instead of enforcing a boycott.

Trevor Phillips, the press spokesman for the association, told JTA, “The resolution is not a union boycott; it is a matter for personal consideration. It was meant only to open up a debate about this topic and encourage members to think about their own responsibility in the issue.”

Further, the vote could soon be moot, since the association is set to merge with the Association of University Teachers, which voted to boycott Israeli academics last year because of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, but rescinded the decision in the face of international criticism.

After the merger of the two unions, which will form the largest higher education union in the world, the resolution would need to be re-approved to become effective.

The Association of University Teachers responded to Monday’s vote by issuing a statement saying they do not endorse the policy and are “strongly advising members not to implement it.”

Nonetheless, opponents of the boycott resolution were outraged at its passage and expressed hope that it would be rescinded.

The chief executive of the Board of Deputies, Jon Benjamin, decried the motion as “a policy that no one in academia should countenance.”

Ronnie Fraser, an association delegate and the chairman of Academic Friends of Israel, an organization formed in 2002 to fight the academic boycott of Israel, said he is “not happy at all” with this outcome.

Fraser said that academics at 30 of Britain’s 100 universities work with Israeli colleagues.

Monday’s vote occurred amid a flurry of protest from academics both in Britain and abroad, as well as lawmakers in the Israeli Parliament who convened an emergency meeting to discuss the proposed boycott, which they described as a “witch hunt.”

Israel’s education minister, Yuli Tamir, unsuccessfully called on the British government to intervene before yesterday’s vote.

A campaign against the boycott was also waged in the media.

The Guardian printed a letter issued by Engage, an academic group that was formed last year to fight the boycott, signed by approximately 600 academics around the world who oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The letter opposed “the inconsistency of blacklisting Israelis” while “adopting a different attitude to academics in the long list of other states that are responsible for equal or worse human rights abuses.”

Engage’s printed appeal was one of numerous public counters to the association’s boycott.

Before the vote, more than 4,700 international academics also signed an online petition, organized by the Israeli-led International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom.

The petition states, “Academic boycott actions are antithetical not only to principles of academic freedom but also to the quest for peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

After the vote, the chairman of the advisory board, Yosef Yeshurun, provost of Bar-Ilan University, said it was “unfortunate” that the British group “decided to adopt a negative approach, seeking to burn bridges instead of building them.”

The British resolution called on the 69,000-member association “to consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves” from “Israeli apartheid policies.”

This part of the resolution passed narrowly, with 53.5 percent of the vote.

Two other paragraphs of the same motion, including those that criticize “Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices” and “invite members to consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals” passed more easily by a show of hands.

The resolution was supported by the Federation of Unions of Palestinian University Professors and Employees, who lauded the boycott as a “courageous initiative.”

The British Committee for Universities of Palestine, which was set up “in response to a Palestinian call for a boycott,” welcomed the vote, stating that the motion’s passage “proves that many academics in the U.K. and beyond do not buy the disingenuous claim that boycott of Israeli academic institutions conflicts with ‘academic freedom’ or inadvertently promotes anti-Semitism in any way.”

Jewish student groups in Britain, meanwhile, expressed concern about the ramifications on campus. Mitch Simmons, campaign director of the Union of Jewish Students of Britain, said, “Israeli and Jewish students cannot be made to feel victimized or excluded due to their nationality or political beliefs.”

“This boycott will only help to cement divisions on campus,” he said.