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.
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 guarantee of the UCU (the newly merged union now being formed by NATFHE amalgamating with the AUT) 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.
David Hirsh, Engage campaign