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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Academic Boycott of Israel: Why Britain?

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 36 

  • In April 2002, The Guardian published an open letter calling for a European Union moratorium on funding for grants and research contracts for Israeli universities. Since then, major attempts to boycott Israeli universities and academics have started in Britain.
  • The Association of University Teachers (AUT) boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, which initially was approved and subsequently rejected in spring 2005, has been a belated wakeup call for Israeli academia and for UK Jewry.
  • Britain has become the world’s center of agitation against Israeli academia due to a well organized British Trade Union movement coupled with a lack of response from the UK Jewish community.


On 22 April 2005, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) had a council meeting in Eastbourne at which they passed motions to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, distribute pro-boycott literature to the AUT’s forty-eight thousand members, and referred back a motion to boycott the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Just over a month later, in a special meeting of the Council on 26 May, these motions were revoked. Instead, the AUT resolved to work with other academic labor unions, the NATFHE, and the TUC (Trades Union Congress) which is the umbrella body for UK labor unions, in a full review of its international policy, and also to provide solidarity to both Palestinian and Israeli.1

Between these two meetings of the AUT membership, participants began to recognize that their union had effectively been hijacked by Sue Blackwell of the University of Birmingham and her fellow boycott supporters. The membership voted overwhelmingly to overturn the ban at their local AUT branches before the special Council meeting. Some members felt strongly about academic freedom, while some thought it was wrong to ostracize Israel at a time of potential peacemaking, and others believed the AUT had now made itself a racist organization.

For Israeli academia and for UK Jewry, these events were a wakeup call. They realized that these issues would not disappear in the foreseeable future.


The Origins of the Academic Boycott

The first campaign anywhere for an academic boycott of Israel was launched in the spring of 2002 at the time of the Israeli offensive against Palestinian terrorist organizations in the West Bank. Two British academics, Steven Rose (who is Jewish) and his wife, Hilary Rose, along with 123 other mostly British academics, published an open letter in The Guardian calling for a European Union moratorium on funding for grants and research contracts for Israeli universities.2

Originally this was seen as a spontaneous reaction to events in Israel and the territories. Subsequently however, it has emerged that the movement was part of a well-planned campaign to link enemies of Israel from the political Left, with self-hating Jews, as well as the Palestinians. This coalition appears to have waited for an opportunity to launch the boycott at a time when the world was condemning Israel.3

The letter’s publication on 6 April 2002 in the Saturday edition, ensured that it would be reprinted elsewhere in the following days. The choice ofThe Guardian was also significant, since this newspaper is well known for its socialist and anti-Israeli views and is widely read by left-wing academics. Indeed, within days, academics from all over the world had signed the petition and similar ones had been started in France and Australia. Although the letter called for an EU moratorium, it became known within a few weeks as “the academic boycott of Israel.”

The letter caught everyone unprepared, and the Israeli and Diaspora responses were not coordinated. Even condemnations from official sources were slow, and it took the EU two weeks to oppose the boycott in a press release. A counter-petition to the call for a European boycott of academic and cultural ties with Israel was published on 15 April.4


Dismissal of Two Israeli Academics

The boycott issue was kept in the headlines when two months later on 6 June, Mona Baker, a lecturer at UMIST University in Manchester and signatory to The Guardian letter, dismissed two Israeli academics from the editorial board of an academic journal that is published by a company she owns. The two academics were Dr. Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan University and Prof. Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University. UMIST, Baker’s employers, decided to distance the university from her act and announced that an inquiry would be held.5 Six months later, UMIST declared that she had broken no rules because what she had done did not conflict with her teaching duties. Throughout this period, the Roses, Baker, and their supporters used letters and articles in newspapers to keep the boycott issue alive.

For all of 2002 and the first few months of 2003 UK Jewry’s response was weak and poorly coordinated. The main reactions came from individual academics in the UK and Israel, though neither country took the boycott threat seriously until 2005.

Sue Blackwell’s first attempt to pass a boycott motion was made at the AUT Council meeting in Scarborough in May 2003.6 The debate was held late on a Friday afternoon, denying many Jewish members the opportunity to participate since they could not get home in time for the Sabbath. Shalom Lappin, an Israeli academic serving as lecturer at King’s College, University of London, led the opposition to the motion which was defeated by a two-to-one majority.

The following month, Prof. Andrew Wilkie, professor of pathology at Oxford, rejected an application for a research position in his laboratory by an Israeli student because he had served in the Israeli army and because Wilkie had a “huge problem” with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Two days later, this author contacted the Sunday Telegraph about the story and its publication there7 sparked worldwide publicity. As a result, Wilkie was suspended without pay for two months and had to take equal-opportunity training. Thus, he was quickly turned from accuser to accused, an event unparalleled in pro-Israeli activism.8


The AUT Boycott

The idea of an academic boycott of Israel has been condemned by bodies as diverse as the UK government,9 the International Council for Science,10 the scientific journal Nature,11 and The Independent newspaper.12 They have asserted that academic work should not be obstructed on political grounds, that discriminating on the basis of nationality is pernicious and will likely lead to further discrimination, and that academic discourse is crucial in keeping channels open to possibilities of peace.

The AUT’s 2005 motions were based on a demand for a boycott voiced in April 2004 by nearly sixty Palestinian academic labor unions and NGOs, under the umbrella of the Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). PACBI claimed that: “The Israeli academy has contributed, either directly or indirectly, to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the military occupation and colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza.”13

In response, Ilan Chet, president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, stated that: “The Israeli academy is not involved in the occupation and politics. We’ve worked with Palestinian academics.”14 Many Israeli academics believed that the 2002 boycott call was rendered ineffective by the opposition of academics throughout the world and that any renewed attempts would fail as well.


The Conference at SOAS

The Palestinian boycott demand however, gave the anti-Israeli academics what they needed: a basis for attempting to impose sanctions at the next year’s AUT Council meeting. First though, came the December 2004 conference on “Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles” at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Although organized by the SOAS Palestinian student society, it was a well-funded international event that brought together prominent supporters of the boycott such as the Roses and Mona Baker of the UK, Lisa Taraki of the Palestinian Authority, John Docker of Australia, Lawrence Davidson of the United States, and Ilan Pappe of Israel.

Many protests were made to the SOAS authorities that the conference would incite hatred and make life more difficult for Jewish students.15 Their response was that they could not interfere because the event was organized by a SOAS student society and not by the school itself.

Hilary Rose’s statement emphasized the importance of the gathering: “We are here today…to set in train nothing less than an international boycott movement of historic significance. The size and difficulties of the task we have set ourselves, and the bitterness of our enemies are immense.” She went on to announce the formation of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), whose purpose is to work for an academic boycott of Israel.


Birmingham AUT’s Boycott Initiative

The culminating step came when Birmingham AUT submitted four boycott motions to the 2005 AUT Council meeting. Blackwell, who proposed them, remarked that this time, instead of a call for a general boycott of Israeli universities as in 2003, the motions were tactical and focused on three institutions, and that “one of the reasons we didn’t win last time was that there was no clear public call from Palestinians for the boycott.”17 After a short debate, the majority of the 228 AUT Council delegates, as noted earlier, voted to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, distribute pro-boycott literature to the forty-eight thousand AUT members, and refer back a motion to boycott the Hebrew University.

Almost immediately a campaign to reverse the decision was launched by AUT members Jon Pike and David Hirsh, who set up a group called Engage. Although politically left-wing themselves, they reject claims that Israel is illegitimate and are concerned that the Left, by adopting such attitudes, has become anti-Semitic. It was Pike who organized a letter signed by 25 AUT Council members requesting the special meeting that was held on 26 May.

The UK Jewish opposition was led by the Academic Friends of Israel (AFI), an organization that campaigns against the boycott and the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli polices of the academic labor unions; the Academic Study Group, which educates UK academics about Israel and brings them there on tours; and the Union of Jewish Students. All these worked closely with Pike and encouraged their members to support the Engage campaign. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which “expressed its concern at the wider implications of the AUT decision,”18 formed the Campaign Group for Academic Freedom (CGAF) to coordinate the Jewish response while also striving to overturn the AUT decision.


The Implications of the AUT Decisions

The AUT Executive Committee, which comprises the organization’s elected leaders, was criticized for its mishandling of the debate on two counts. First, it had decided at its committee meeting before the first Council session not to support the boycott motions, but to say it wished them to be referred back, a procedure that is a favorite tactic of labor unions when they want to “bury” a subject. The Executive argued the case for “reference back” on the three motions, but lost the Council vote and the boycott motions were approved. They had underestimated the determination of the proponents who had garnered 30 percent of the vote in 2003 and knew they needed less than twenty additional votes to win this time. Their second mistake was to impose closure in the debate due to lack of time before the boycott opponents were allowed to present their case; as a result the vote went against the Executive.19

The AUT Executive also ignored several requests from the AFI and from Bar-Ilan University to reschedule the debate from Friday to earlier in the week so that Jewish members could take part in it. This time, holding it on a Friday made it even more difficult, as Jewish members needed to get home in time both for the Sabbath and for the Passover festival that started the following night.20 This would have been the equivalent of scheduling the debate on Christmas Eve for the general community.

The charges against the Israeli institutions concerned were largely false or misleading. The basis for seeking to boycott the Hebrew University was that it had allegedly confiscated land from an Arab family even though repeated court proceedings had found in favor of the university, and the matter eventually settled between the parties. The claim against Haifa University was that it was victimizing and threatening to dismiss Dr. Ilan Pappe, yet the university has repeatedly made clear that it never attempted to dismiss him and his status is secure. Bar-Ilan University was accused of being “directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories” because it supervised 3 percent of the lecture courses at the College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank, whose student body comprises Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians. Bar-Ilan’s connection with the college will end however, when the last students from courses it had supervised graduate in August 2005. The AFI presented the AUT with the information on all three universities two weeks before the debate, but this did not help.

The AUT Executive’s own motion21 calling for dialogue with both sides in the conflict was only passed in an amended form by the Council, which removed the part referring to cooperation with Israeli universities. The motion was also criticized by Blackwell and her colleagues. Because of sloppy drafting, it called for contact with a nonexistent “Israeli Higher Education Union.” Although the AFI had also previously questioned the AUT about this problem, it proved to be a critical mistake as Blackwell used it against the Executive during her speech in the debate.

The Executive supported both the motion to distribute pro-boycott literature and its own motion to pursue dialogue with both sides, apparently failing to see the contradiction. They had mistakenly expected both that Blackwell’s boycott motions would be rejected and that Israeli academics would want to maintain contact with the Executive despite its support for distributing the literature.

The AUT boycott was not aimed at building support for the Palestinians or opposing Israeli policy; it was an attempt by a small group of activists to demonize and delegitimize Israel. Although Blackwell has frequently stated that she is not anti-Semitic, she regards Israel as “illegitimate,”22 and her actions in support of motions that exclude from the threat of a boycott “conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies” are themselves anti-Semitic and racist. Similar statements can be made of course about other supporters of the boycott.

The boycott motions breached UK legislation on equal opportunity and discrimination as well as similar UK university regulations. In practice, this meant that both the academics and the AUT itself as a body would be breaking the law by following the boycott, which could lead to legal proceedings and dismissals.

If the boycott had been confirmed at the second AUT meeting there could have been serious financial consequences. The large numbers of American students attending UK institutions would have declined and many American donors to UK universities would have stopped their contributions. Indeed UK-U.S. academic cooperation would also have been threatened.


International Reactions to the Boycott Call

International reactions played a major part in overturning the motions. Among the most influential were the twenty-one Nobel Prize winners who wrote that: “mixing science with politics, and limiting academic freedom by boycotts, is wrong,”23 along with statements by nineteen Rhodes Scholars,24 the American Association of University Professors,25 the National Academy of Sciences,26 and the American Federation of Teachers.27

Other reactions included calls for a counter boycott from both the Anti-Defamation League and Bar-Ilan University,28 and opposition to the boycott by left-wing Israeli academics such as David Newman and Baruch Kimmerling.29 There were also expressions of concern that a boycott call would affect the large number of joint UK-Israeli academic projects, though any boycott action, as mentioned, contravenes UK universities’ rules on equal opportunities and discrimination.

Compared to the boycott call in 2002, the Israeli reaction was totally different. In the first instance, the response was a counter boycott petition organized by academics. Since it garnered fifteen thousand names30 compared to the only one thousand on the Roses’ boycott petition, many Israelis believed their side had prevailed. This however was mistaken since the issue of boycotting Israel had now spread to universities all over the world. The success of the boycott campaign has not been the number of actions that have succeeded, but the fact that academics worldwide are now aware of it.

In the 2005 case, both Haifa and Hebrew universities threatened to take legal action against the AUT because of the false allegations,31 and Bar-Ilan’s Campaign for Academic Freedom published a letter in The Guardian stating that: “The open and free exchange of ideas are the foundation of civilization and without them there can be no true advancement of human knowledge.”32 The Hebrew University also signed a joint statement with Al Quds University calling for academic cooperation.33


Why Britain?

Why has the boycott won so much support in Britain? First, academics are more organized there than in the United States or Western Europe and the labor unions allow the activists, many of them left-wing, to decide policies. More generally, labor unions have traditionally been powerful in Britain. Other reasons include the identification of Israel with Britain’s colonial past and Britain’s long association with the Middle East; the Balfour Declaration; leftist support for the Palestinians, which began during the 1960s and was complete by the time of the Lebanon War in 1982; an atmosphere of severe criticism of Israel including demonization, double standards, and the implicit denial of its right to defend itself;34 condemnation of Israeli actions by self-hating Jews in a left-wing context; and of course, Judeophobia.


Could It Have Started Elsewhere?

Could the boycott attempt have been launched elsewhere, such as in France or the United States? In France there was support for the first boycott call in 2002 and several universities passed boycott motions. However, there was active opposition by Jewish academics, and the French are more cautious than the British about taking actions that can be interpreted as anti-Semitic. In the United States, the Jewish community is well organized and responds forcefully to anti-Israeli actions. In addition, the labor unions are supportive of Israel.

UK Jewry however, has been marked by passivity. It failed to respond to the Palestinian solidarity campaign in Britain brought on by the Lebanon War and ignored the trend of growing labor union support for the Palestinians and declining sympathy for Israel. Only in the past three years has the community again started to build ties with the unions.

Traditionally, UK Jewry has not wanted to be identified as an ethnic immigrant community, but instead as part of the establishment. In contrast, recent immigrant groups such as the Muslims and the Hindus have sought to maintain their distinct profiles. Indeed, for the past 120 years, UK Jewry’s attitude has been to play by the rules, for fear of a possible upsurge in anti-Semitism. Nor has the community used the “Jewish vote” to defend its interests, not even formerly when it was the largest ethnic group in the country. Hence, the Board of Deputies and other leaders often take a low-key, behind-the-scenes approach that is consistent with English reserve.


Future Developments

Although the recent AUT boycott motions have been overturned, its promoters have once again been successful in generating publicity, which has gone beyond academia to the general population.

UK Jewry reacted more assertively this time,35 among other things setting up the CGAF. Indeed, the AUT boycott has been a defining moment for the community, which seems to have been influenced by Israeli and American reactions. Battles of this nature can no longer be fought by individual communities; instead they require a coordinated, international, Diaspora-Israeli response. Regarding the divestment campaign of Israeli and some related securities – a similar international problem – time will tell whether Jewry has learned the lessons of the AUT boycott attempt.

Academic Friends of Israel is one of only three groups in the world whose sole purpose is to fight academic boycotts of Israel. The other two organizations are Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and the International Academic Friends of Israel, both of which are based in America. Future boycott attempts will require that academics and Jewish communities throughout the world, including Israel, to organize and work together counter the anti-Israeli atmosphere on campuses.

The UK labor unions appear to have learned from the AUT experience that they can no longer use phrases like “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism” which was deleted from a NATFHE conference motion on legal advice. Any of their future actions must be consistent with discrimination laws and employment contracts, as it may otherwise put their assets at risk. Indeed, with a merger between the AUT and NATFHE scheduled for 2006, it is doubtful that there will be another boycott attempt soon. However, the UK universities may well face divestment challenges.

The levels of anti-Semitism toward Jewish students and academics at Britain’s universities, as well as future boycott and divestment activity, depend on whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arrives at a breakthrough or a breakdown. Recently however, the 2004 Palestinian boycott was reaffirmed by a larger number of Palestinian groups.36 The outlook is therefore uncertain and not particularly optimistic since last year Britain experienced record numbers of anti-Semitic incidents, while generally accepting without protest the use of anti-Semitic motifs and methods.37


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1. , Staff and agencies, “Academics Vote against Israeli Boycott,” The Guardian, 26 May 2005,,9830,1493083,00.html.

2. Open letter, The Guardian, 6 April 2002. 

3. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The Academic Boycott against Israel,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 15, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2003) p. 25, “At the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban 2001, SANGOCO (the South African NGO Committee) promoted the proposal to impose a sports, telecommunications, academic, scientific, and military embargo on Israel and act against Israel in a similar fashion to what was done in the past against South Africa. SANGOCO has a close relationship with the PLO. 

4. Press Release, “EU Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin Replies to Call for Boycott on Scientific and Cultural Relations with Israel,” No. D/0050/02 PR4/02, 25 April 2002. 

5. Liz Lightfoot and Nicole Martin, “University Inquiry into Sacking of Israeli Dons,” Daily Telegraph, 20 July 2002; Polly Curtis, “UMIST Professor Escapes Disciplinary Action,” The Guardian, 30 January 2003. 

6. Julie Henry, “Lecturers under Fire after Call for Boycott of Israel,” Sunday Telegraph, 4 May 2003; Will Woodward, “Lecturers Reject Call to Boycott Israel,” The Guardian, 10 May 2003. 

7. Julie Henry, “Outrage as Oxford Bans Student for Being Israeli,” Sunday Telegraph, 29 June 2003. 

8. For more information, see Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The Academic Boycott against Israel,” pp. 9-70. 

9. Francis Elliot and Catherine Milner, “Blair Vows to End Dons’ Boycott of Israeli Scholars,” Daily Telegraph, 17 November 2002. 

10. “Israeli Scholars,” ICSU/SCFCS statement, 23 August 2002, 

11. “Is a Scientific Boycott Ever Justified?” Nature, No. 421, 23 January 2003, p. 314. 

12. Editorial, The Independent, 7 April 2005. 

13. “Palestinian Call for Boycott,” 

14. Sheldon Kirshner, “Academic Boycott against Israel Losing Ground,” Canadian Jewish News, 11 November 2004. 

15. Polly Curtis, “Israel Boycott Row Hits College,” The Guardian, 4 December 2004. 

16. Hilary Rose, “Building the Academic Boycott in Britain: SOAS Conference Report,” 17. Polly Curtis, “Boycott Call Resurfaces,” The Guardian, 5 April 2005. 


19. Polly Curtis, “Lecturers Vote for Israeli Boycott,” The Guardian, 22 April 2005. 

20. Julie Henry, “Anger as Union Bars Israeli Academic,” Sunday Telegraph, 24 April 2005. 

21. For a full list of motions, see or 

22. Phil Baty, “I’ve No Regrets. We’ve Touched a Raw Nerve,” Times Higher Educational Supplement, 20 May 2005. 

23. Open letter, The Guardian, 24 May 2005. 

24. “AJ Congress Condemns AUT Boycott of Israeli Academics,” 

25. Statement of the American Association of University Professors, 

26. Statement of the NAS Council on International Cooperation in Science, 

27. “The Association of University Teachers (AUT) and Boycotts of Israeli Universities,” 

28. Stewart Ain and Michele Chabin, “Pressure Building against British Academic Boycott,” Jewish Week, 29 April 2005. 

29. David Newman and Benjamin Pogrund, “A Boycott Will Only Strengthen the Israeli Right,” The Guardian, 25 May 2005; Baruch Kimmerling, “Boycotts Will Do Nothing to Change Israeli Policy,” Times Higher Education Supplement, 29 April 2005. 


31. Phil Baty, “Haifa Threatens AUT with Legal Action,” Times Higher Educational Supplement, 13 May 2005. 

32. Copy of IAB open letter: 

33. Tamara Traubman and Arnon Regular, “Nusseibeh Denounces Boycott of Israeli Academia,” Haaretz, 22 May 2005. 

34. Robert Wistrich, “Cruel Britannia,” Azure, Summer 2005. 

35. H. Grunwald, “Why Must One Shout, when a Whisper Can Be Heard?” Jerusalem Post, 7 June 2005. 

36. “Palestinian Civil Society Calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel,” 

37 Wistrich, “Cruel Britannia.”


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Ronnie Fraser is founder and chair of the Academic Friends of Israel ( He is a lecturer at Barnet College in London and a member of the NATFHE lecturers union. This autumn he will complete an MA in Jewish Studies at Southampton University with a dissertation on “The Trades Union Congress, the Left, and Israel 1967-1982.”