Much Ado About… the Academic Boycott of Israel in the UK

, June 14, 2015

Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 15,  No. 17    June 14,  2015

  • The National Executive Council of the British National Union of Students’ BDS resolution on June 2, 2015 may have been publicized by the faction on the executive which proposed the resolution, rather than by the NUS itself.
  • It was carefully worded, only “encouraging” rather than “mandating” individual student unions to support BDS. This is for good reason, because too strong a resolution on BDS leaves organizations open to legal challenge and financial penalty under UK anti-discrimination regulations.
  • The representative body of the 133 British universities, Universities UK, was quick to reiterate its firm opposition “to academic boycotts on the basis that they are inimical to academic freedom including the freedom of academics to collaborate with other academics.”
  • Co-operation between Israeli and British universities and their academics has grown in recent years under the energetic leadership of outgoing UK ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould.
  • Israel’s national effort must be directed, not on student political stunts which have the effect of a flea on an elephant. When a large international company in Israel’s flagship business sector, Hi-Tech, threatens to cease trading with the country, this is a major, serious BDS threat. It is not a bunch of amateur student politicos.
BDS demonstration in the UK

BDS demonstration in the UK

BDS demonstration in the UK

BDS demonstration in the UK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The National Executive Council of the British National Union of Students (NUS) must be slightly bemused by the furor aroused by its adoption of a Boycott-Divestment-Sanction Israel (BDS) resolution on June 2, 2015. The move was condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called it “a new guise of anti-Semitism.” Yet, the NUS website itself does not mention the resolution. Indeed, there is a suspicion that the resolution was publicized by the faction on the executive which proposed the resolution, rather than by the NUS itself.

Indeed the Executive Council probably did not think it was doing anything dramatic when it took its vote. Its meeting was considering resolutions which had been on the agenda but had not been considered at its April conference. In fact, the resolution was re-affirming the NUS support for boycott which it agreed to last year. Moreover it was carefully worded, only “encouraging” rather than “mandating” individual student unions to support BDS. This is for good reason, because too strong a resolution on BDS leaves organizations open to legal challenge and financial penalty under UK anti-discrimination regulations.

Ronnie Fraser, head of the British Academic Friends of Israel and long-time fighter against academic boycotts, has pointed out that the lecturers union in Britain, UCU, just two weeks earlier, had to declare a boycott resolution at its own Congress “void and of null effect.” It had to, Fraser points out, because in 2007 it received legal advice that:

“It would be beyond the Union’s powers and unlawful for the Union, directly or indirectly, to call for or to implement a boycott by the Union and its members of any kind of Israeli universities and other academic institutions; and that the use of Union funds, directly or indirectly, to further such a boycott would also be unlawful.”

The lecturers union now goes through an annual ritual in which activists support a boycott resolution and the officers declare it null and void. The activists get publicity for their stance and the union makes sure nothing happens in practice. It must be assumed that the NUS knows of this legal minefield and will tread very carefully after the activists receive their publicity.

The NUS resolution was passed by 19 votes to 14 with 1 abstention, indicating a split in the National Executive, with the Left Labour faction within the executive condemning the resolution and voting against it.  Student unions at each university and college operate independently from their institution. The student union cannot make policy for the university, and the university cannot dictate policy to the student union. So the practical impact of the NUS resolution, if it is followed by any individual student union, will probably only be felt in the student building if anyone asks for an Israeli-produced Goldstar beer at the bar!

UK Universities Know the Importance of Israel Ties

The representative body of the 133 British universities, Universities UK, was quick to make the limited remit of student unions clear and to reiterate its firm opposition “to academic boycotts on the basis that they are inimical to academic freedom including the freedom of academics to collaborate with other academics.” Its statement went on to say:

“The Board of Universities UK wishes to confirm its previously stated position that it is firmly opposed to any academic boycott of Israeli universities.”

These are not just fine words. In reality, co-operation between Israeli and British universities and their academics has grown in recent years under the energetic leadership of outgoing UK ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould. The latest examples of this growing co-operation are the BIRAX agreement signed earlier this year and the post-doctoral student agreement signed less than 2 months ago. The British Israel Research and Academic Exchange (BIRAX) was established some years ago, and its latest announcement was £10 million to support advanced medical research projects at 11 British and Israeli universities.

Less than two months ago the president of the prestigious British Royal Society and Nobel laureate, Sir Paul Nurse, and the president of the Israel Academy of  Sciences and Humanities, Professor Ruth Arnon, signed an agreement for joint research activity, including the funding of 12-15 post doctorate exchange fellows. These are not exceptional events. This practical co-operation between serious academics has been going on for years and is growing.

This is not to say that all is sweetness and light on UK campuses. Jewish students have been bearing the brunt of anti-Israel activity for 40 years, stimulated originally by the notorious UN resolution about Zionism and Racism. This allowed anti-Israel activists to claim that Jewish student societies which supported Israel were racist and should therefore be banned on grounds of anti-racism. They had a few short-lived victories, and the resilient Jewish students of that period fought these battles on their own, because the “adult community” was not even aware of the problem, let alone organized to confront it.

The Harassment Felt by Jewish Students

In the current era, anti-Israel activity is more widespread and organized and is fueled by larger concentrations of Muslim students on some campuses. The practical impact on Jewish students is unpleasant; hostile confrontations with other students occur particularly when supportive Israeli activity is taking place. It is not surprising that occasionally these confrontations turn violent. But it happens at a limited number of universities, and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) now has professional support and years of experience in combating these attacks. The wider Jewish community is also now working more closely with UJS providing resources and expertise.

Meanwhile, the authorities at flashpoint universities keep a wary eye on proceedings. They are constrained by the independence of student-led activity and by freedom of speech considerations. Upsetting people is in many ways an academic virtue rather than a vice. On the other hand, the authorities have a legal duty to ensure people do not feel threatened on campus, and it is that interface between vigorous disagreement and threatening behavior where difficult decisions about intervention take place.

The furious Israeli government reaction to the rather insignificant NUS resolution occurred because Prime Minister Netanyahu and his colleagues have recognized, correctly if belatedly, that BDS is a strategic danger to Israel. However, if the response is to be effective, it needs to be more nuanced and sophisticated. Shooting full volleys of ammunition at all targets is counter-productive.

On the same day that the NUS resolution became public a senior executive of Orange in France indicated that they wish to end the relationship with their Israeli partner and pull Orange out of Israel. This is major, serious BDS threat. It is not a bunch of amateur student politicos, but a large international company in Israel’s flagship business sector, High Tech, threatening to cease trading with the country. Orange now claims they were misunderstood, but the genie is out of the bottle. This is where the national effort must be directed, not on student political stunts which have the effect of a flea on an elephant. If you shout “Wolf” at everything, how will the world know when you really mean “Wolf”?

 

Prof. Leslie Wagner

Prof. Leslie Wagner is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Before making Aliyah in 2008, he was Chancellor of the University of Derby and Vice-Chancellor (President) of Leeds Metropolitan University in England. Within the Jewish community, the offices held by Professor Wagner included Vice President of the United Synagogue and trustee of the Office of the Chief Rabbi. He chaired the Commission on the Future of Jewish Schools for the Jewish Leadership Council. In 2000, Professor Wagner was honored by the Queen for his services to higher education and the Jewish community.