The debate within UCU, the University and College Union, on whether to launch a boycott of Israeli academia has been called off after lawyers consulted by the leadership declared a boycott “illegal”. After a unanimous vote by the Strategy and Finance Committee, including members of UCU Left, union branches have been told they cannot vote on a boycott, and a planned speaker tour of Israeli and Palestinian academics has been called off, at least for this term.
Despite calls from both supporters and opponents of the boycott, the legal opinions — one reportedly given by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester — have not been published. It is rumoured that they rest on two points: equality law and the commitment to equality set out in the union’s aims and objectives. These are the grounds most often cited by those opponents of the boycott who had been threatening the union with legal action if it went ahead.
A boycott of Israeli universities would have been absolutely wrong. It would have meant giving up on solidarity with those Israelis who oppose the occupation. The many arguments against the boycott have been spelt out repeatedly in Solidarity. But it is an disgrace that union debate can be shut down on the basis of a legal opinion that members have not even been allowed to see. What other activities could now be ruled illegal?
The background to this decision goes back several years. In 2005, the then Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted for a boycott of Israel. If that was illegal, no-one mentioned it at the time. Opponents of the boycott mobilised for a special conference and overwhelmingly overturned the decision — showing that the argument could be had and won within the existing union structures. Following the merger of the AUT and Natfhe to create UCU, a proposal to hold a national debate on the boycott plan was passed at the inaugural conference. Supporters of the boycott evidently did not feel that they would win an outright boycott immediately, if indeed at all.
In the meantime, the winning candidate for General Secretary, Sally Hunt, had made an all-members ballot on any boycott a key feature of her election campaign. This was strongly supported by members of the anti-boycott group “Engage”. It was unfortunate that rather than try to mobilise the membership as they had done successfully in 2005, many anti-boycotters favoured a ballot that would have set a dangerous precedent in allowing the leadership to operate outside the union’s established democratic structures. Some of them are now also cheering the legal opinion, with little concern for its broader implications.
Ironically, the acceptance of the legal opinion also suits some of those who were in favour of the boycott. The SWP had already begun to get cold feet. Alex Callinicos argued in Socialist Worker (29 September 2007) against proposing a boycott at the next conference, citing two tactical problems:
“The first is that the boycott is an issue that divides critics of Israel. Even as sterling an anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist as Noam Chomsky opposes it.
“The second is that any ballot would be dominated by a well-funded Zionist campaign that would enjoy the overwhelming support of the mass media. Under such pressure, the boycott would almost certainly be heavily defeated. Such an outcome would set back the cause of solidarity with Palestine in British universities for many years.”
The lawyers have helped the SWP and other “anti-Zionists” hang together in collective outrage: they can denounce the leadership and continue to call on members of UCU to boycott Israel as individuals without running the risk of being defeated at Congress. Meanwhile those opponents of the boycott – like supporters of Solidarity – who wanted a chance to win the argument through the union’s democratic structures have lost that opportunity.