Opponents of British Faculty Union's Israeli Boycott Say Legal Threat Has Blocked It

December 17, 2008

Opponents of longstanding efforts by some members of Britain’s main faculty union to call for an academic boycott of Israel now say that such efforts have been defeated and that they will sue the union to prevent similar actions in the future.

Annual meetings of British faculty unions have been dominated in recent years by controversy surrounding the passage of motions on relations with Israeli institutions and academics, measures that critics have characterized as anti-Semitic and ultimately unlawful.

At its annual meeting in May, the University and College Union, which represents 120,000 British academics and higher-education staff members, passed a motion whose provisions included a resolution that “colleagues be asked to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating.”

In a statement released the day the motion passed, the union’s general secretary described the measure as “a motion to provide solidarity with the Palestinians, not to boycott Israel or any other country’s academic institutions.”

A group of leading academics subsequently hired Anthony Julius, one of Britain’s best-known lawyers, to mount a legal challenge to the union, and the two sides met late last month. The union’s lawyer clarified in a letter earlier this month to the group how the union’s executive committee proposed to carry out the motion, with measures that included a broad “program of work” that did not explicitly single out any Israeli institutions for censure.

The steps the union has said it will take and the substance of the motion passed in May are “as different as chalk and cheese,” said Michael Yudkin, an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Oxford and a leading challenger of the motion. “They have decided that the way of implementing the resolution is to forget all about the clauses calling for specific action and to do something totally different,” he said.

The final nail in the coffin of future boycott actions is the unequivocal threat of legal action if such motions, which violate the union’s own rules, are proposed at the union’s annual congress, Mr. Yudkin said. —Aisha Labi