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The UCU May 2007 Boycott Resolution and its Aftermath

Filed under: Antisemitism, Europe and Israel, International Law, Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

At the end of September 2007 the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK announced that it would end its involvement with plans for an academic boycott of Israel. It mentioned that it had been advised that such an action would be illegal under British law. With that seemingly a five year battle came to an end.

The anti-Israeli boycott campaign on campus in the twenty-first century has its origins in the United Kingdom. It can be traced back to an open letter by academics in The Guardian on 6 April 2002. It called for a moratorium on all cultural and research links with Israel at European or national levels until the Israeli government abided by UN resolutions and opened “serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League.”[2]

Since then there have been many efforts to organize anti-Israeli actions both on campuses and in broader academic frameworks in several countries. In some universities these have led to outbursts of anti-Semitism accompanied by violence.[3]

During recent years members of UK academia have continued to play a key role in anti-Israeli boycott efforts.[4] In 2005, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) passed a motion boycotting Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, which was revoked after a month. In May 2006, NATFHE, another UK academic teachers union, voted in favor of boycotting Israeli academics. The motion was ineffective as a few days later NATHFE merged with AUT into the UCU. This union now comprises about 120,000 teachers at universities, colleges, and higher-education organizations in the United Kingdom.

The Boycott at the UCU Conference

The anti-Israeli boycott issue was raised again at the first conference of the UCU at the end of May 2007 in Bournemouth. A motion was passed there calling for a debate on a comprehensive and consistent boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Some 158 delegates voted in favor and 99 against.[5]

The resolution condemned Israeli academia’s involvement with the occupation of the territories. It called for lecturers to refuse to collaborate on research with Israeli academics, including refusal to work with Israeli academic journals.

Sally Hunt, the UCU’s secretary-general, asserted during the conference that most UCU members would not support such a boycott and it would not be a priority for them. She stressed that the motion was a call for discussion and not an actual decision to implement a boycott.[6] Hunt did not mention at any time whether she herself supported the boycott or not.

Earlier, at its annual delegates meeting in April, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) had passed a call for a boycott of Israeli products by a 66-54 majority. Groups of journalists at the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, and elsewhere issued strong condemnations.[7] In early July, the NUJ succumbed to the opposition and issued a statement by its executive that amounted to a decision to ignore the boycott resolution.[8]

The UCU boycott call was followed by several anti-Israeli resolutions by other British unions. UNISON, the largest UK trade union, voted on 19 June for an economic, cultural, academic, and sports boycott of Israel.[9] In the last week of June another large union, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), passed a resolution to ban the import of all Israeli products.[10] That same week a Northern Ireland union, the Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), unanimously passed five pro-Palestinian motions including one in support of boycotting Israeli products and services.[11]


Protests against the UCU resolution built up slowly. Most of the initial ones came from Jewish organizations and individuals. Already before the UCU boycott, American Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg decided not to travel to Britain for a lecture at Imperial College in London in view of the severe anti-Israeli sentiment emerging throughout the United Kingdom.[12]

Israeli education minister Yuli Tamir and foreign minister Tzipi Livni  condemned the UCU motion.[13] The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published ads in the New York Times and other publications against the proposed boycott. They pointed out the British academics’ unfair isolation of Israel in their purported desire to achieve justice. As ADL national director Abe Foxman noted, “If British journalists and university professors and doctors want to make a point for justice, there are 20 countries they could deal with…. If the only country [that is subject to criticism] in the whole world is Israel, I call it anti-Semitism.”[14]

In early June, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), an independent international group of faculty members, started a petition of academics  denouncing the academic boycott against Israel. By mid-September 2007 eleven thousand academics had signed it, including 33 Nobel Prize winners and 58 college and university heads.[15]

The Goldhirsh Foundation, an American $150 million research sponsor, reacted to the boycott developments by stating that it would not fund British research anymore.[16]

Before, during, and after the boycott resolution, an important role in the fight against the boycott was played by the Israel-based International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB), which supported UK lobbying efforts, accumulated databases, organized media coverage, and informed Israeli academics and the press about the boycott.[17]

The Anti-Semitic Character of the Boycott

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz announced that he would sue UK universities and British academics who supported the boycott, using a variety of legislational tactics. Among them he cited an American law that bans discrimination on the basis of nationality, to be used against universities in the UK with research ties to U.S. institutions.[18]

In an article in the Times a British lawyer, Anthony Julius, and Dershowitz wrote that the boycotters, in excluding “from consideration the many nations with far worse human rights records than Israel, . . . are merely practicing sophistry in defence of their own double standards.”[19] Julius and Dershowitz went on to cite two reasons to regard the boycotters’ position as an anti-Semitic one. First, it resonated with earlier boycotts of Jews that were all based on a “principle of exclusion: Jews and/or the Jewish State, are to be excluded from public life, from the community of nations, because they are dangerous and malign.”[20]

Second, the boycott was “predicated on the defamation of Jews.” Julius and Dershowitz provided several arguments for this point, concluding that: “Boycotters may have Jewish friends, some may be Jews themselves-but in supporting a boycott they have put themselves in anti-Semitism’s camp.”[21]

British Governmental and Political Reactions

The British government has expressed its disapproval of the boycott in various ways. The British ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips, declared that the boycott motion would have no impact on British-Israeli relations.[22] British education minister Bill Rammell said in a visit to Israel that the UK supported academic freedom and firmly opposed any boycott of Israel. Rammell expressed disappointment that the UCU had passed the boycott motion and said it was “fundamentally wrong.”[23]

On 6 June, the then prime minister Tony Blair called on the UCU to put an end to the boycott, saying he hoped “very much that decision is overturned because it does absolutely no good for the peace process or for relations in that part of the world.”[24]

One of the strongest British reactions against the boycott came from Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who affirmed his solidarity with Israel saying, “If by Zionist you mean that the Jews have the right to a homeland in Israel and the right to a country then I am a Zionist.”[25]

Labour MP Andrew Dismore was among several British parliamentarians who expressed opposition to the boycott. He noted that it severely undermined the principle of academic freedom in addition to being unproductive and possible even impedimentary to peace efforts.[26]

At the Liberal Democrats annual conference in mid-September a motion was adopted with overwhelming support. It called on UCU members to reject the boycott proposal. Several MPs, among them Lembit Opik, spoke in favor of the proposed motion. The only parliamentarian to speak against the motion was the anti-Israeli Lady Jenny Tonge.[27] The motion listed many reasons against the boycott, among which that “it is perverse for academics to boycott only Israel, if other countries with far worse records of academic freedom are not also to be boycotted.”[28]

U.S. Academic Reactions

Many of the strongest condemnations of the boycott came from U.S. academia. On 13 June, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger was the first American university president to denounce the boycott as being “antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy.”[29] This was gradually followed by many others including the entire University of California system,[30] Yeshiva University,[31] the University of Pennsylvania,[32] Brandeis University, the University of Miami, Tufts University, Northwestern University, Penn State University,[33] Tulane University,[34] and Dillard University.[35]

Canadian universities also came out in numbers against the boycott including the University of Toronto,[36] York University,[37] the University of Montreal, McGill University,[38] Ryerson University,[39] and Carleton University.[40]

Two hundred fifty British academics published an ad in the London Times against the boycott. Oxford University announced that it would not join the boycott, and 95 percent of Oxford UCU members supported their university’s stance.[41] The Russell group of universities, which represents the twenty leading research universities in the UK, condemned the boycott. The great majority of their members, however, remained silent on the issue and so did other British universities.

Ronnie Fraser, director of the UK organization Academic Friends of Israel, noted that he knew “of only three out of 105 UK universities who have issued a statement on a boycott.”[42] Fraser’s statement confirms the insufficient nature of British opposition compared to the United States and Canada.

Also coming out against the boycott were Nobel Prize winners and Rhodes Scholars, each issuing petitions signed by a number of them.

Many medical professionals-both individuals as well as professional groups such as the American Physiological Society-expressed opposition to the boycott. Similar to statements by university professors that the boycott constitutes a breach of academic freedom, scientific and medical organizations invoked the principles of free research and the “universality of science.”[43]

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) also came out against the boycott. It expressed concern about the negative implications of stemming the “free flow of ideas and knowledge” for creating stable democratized societies.[44]

Already in 2002 when an anti-Israeli boycott motion had been passed at Paris 6 University (also known as Jussieu), the then UNESCO director- general Koichiro Matsuura had criticized that university’s attempts to isolate Israel academics, stating: “We must do everything possible to preserve the conditions for dialogue between the various scientific and academic communities throughout the world, as this dialogue is sometimes the last link between people divided by war and the first step toward reconciliation.”[45]

One major success of the boycott opponents came in early August when a full-page ad, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, was published in the New York Times in which close to three hundred American university and college presidents stated that they would not work with institutions that were boycotting Israeli academics. The ad said: “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too.”[46] By 12 September 2007 the number had risen to 415.[47]

A British academic, Prof. Mark Pepys, head of the University of London’s Department of Medicine, thereupon mentioned the problems this could cause for British academics and said British universities should take “an equally rigorous and unequivocal public stand so that they are not tainted by association with those individuals who propose a boycott.”[48]

The Polls

A number of polls were taken to gauge the feelings of academics, businesspeople, doctors, and public citizens about the boycott, all of which yielded results in keeping with the backlash against it. A poll by Populus of nearly one thousand political, cultural, and business leaders in Britain found 86 percent opposing an academic boycott and only 14 percent supporting it. Varied reasons were given for this stance; many thought it was a bad way to express disapproval (80%), others thought it was bad for Britain’s image and economy (70%).[49]

Polls of reader and generalized populations came up with similar results. The New Statesman‘s reader poll showed 66 percent of respondents opposing a boycott and 34 percent in favor.[50] In a poll by the British Medical Journal of both scientific professionals and the general public, 77 percent of respondents opposed an academic boycott and 23 percent supported it.[51]

The Proboycotters

Public supporters of the boycott remained mainly within the original Palestinian and pro-Palestinian categories. The arguments of these proboycotters differ.

One group comes from the Palestinian universities. Lisa Taraki, dean of graduate studies at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, expressed her support for the boycott in an article in The Guardian: “Where have these [Israeli university] presidents been for the last three decades when our academic freedom has been trampled on every day?”[52] The Israeli academics’ lack of outrage at the government’s treatment of their Palestinian counterparts, she claimed, warranted a boycott such as the UCU’s.

A second group consists of British Muslim organizations such as the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK). They claim the boycott will serve four main purposes:

Good for Britain, as this boycott confirms and underlines Britain’s honorable, long-standing commitment to support the oppressed and disadvantaged. Good for academic freedom, because one cannot have true academic freedom at the expense of another group of people. Good for Palestinians as it demonstrated that we support their struggle for academic freedom and will give strength to their cause. Good for peace and there can be no peace without equality and justice.[53]

The Israeli daily Haaretz gave space to two enemies of Israel in its op-ed section. Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian-born academic, argues in her article “Weapon of the Weak” that a boycott alone is a useless tool, and “Only when Israel is made a pariah state, as happened with South Africa, will its people understand that they cannot trample on another people’s rights without penalty.”[54] In another article published that same day, Mark Klusener, a journalist living in Ramallah, echoed Karmi’s sentiments that the boycott was ineffective on its own and said it had to be buttressed by economic and social sanctions in order to “achieve its goal.”[55]

Anti-Semitism in British Universities

The boycott once again revealed that there is substantial anti-Semitism in British universities. This had been addressed in 2006 by the British All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, whose report cited testimony from the Union of Jewish Students “that the current situation in the Middle East is causing tensions between student bodies on some campuses and, in the worst cases, Jewish students are being intimidated or harassed.”[56]

The Parliamentary Group also mentioned, among many other issues, that it had received evidence “regarding the attitudes of a small number of academics whose critical views of Israel have adversely affected their relations with Jewish students. Particular tension has been caused by rare cases of academics who have crossed the line between personal interest or activism, and academic abuse of power.”[57]

The Parliamentary Group’s report also referred to the singling out of Israel for boycott while none had been proposed against other countries. It concluded that

calls to boycott contact with academics working in Israel are an assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange. We recommend that lecturers in the new University and College Lecturers Union are given every support to combat such selective boycotts that are anti-Jewish in practice. We would urge the new union’s executive and leadership to oppose the boycott.[58]

The developments at the UCU in 2007, however, showed that this recommendation was to no avail.

The Boycott: Not About the Palestinians

The battle around the UCU motion showed many recurring elements from earlier boycott attempts. Yet a number of new ones also came to the fore.

The boycotters have undoubtedly become more sophisticated in their approach. Fraser considers that the initial boycotters such as Steven Rose and Sue Blackwell have been superseded as the dominant figures and that the boycott campaign of the various trade unions is centrally orchestrated by extreme left-wing bodies. Furthermore, Fraser contends that the boycott organizers are first and foremost looking for publicity and demonizing Israel’s image. In his view they care much less whether the boycott has any real effect.[59]

This confirms earlier assessments about the extreme Left’s interest in the Middle East issue. It does not derive from a genuine concern about Palestinians. One can gauge this from the lack of reaction when Palestinians murder each other or when hundreds of them are killed in Iraq by other Arabs.

For the extreme Left the boycott action is primarily a tool to regain a place on the British public stage. The Left, part of which belongs to the Old Labour socialist segments of the Labour Party, while others are to the left of that party, dramatically lost influence in the years of Tony Blair’s premiership.

Academia under Threat

There is an increasing awareness that the attacks on Israel, if not countered, might presage much larger problems for the academic world. Boycott actions are unlikely to remain limited to one target. Recent years have seen issues of discrimination raised particularly at American universities and involving Republicans and evangelicals, as pointed out, for instance, in many articles in FrontPage Magazine.

Some of the antiboycotters probably do not act out of sympathy for Israel.  Otherwise they would have condemned the boycott on earlier occasions. They started realizing to various degrees that this boycott is a dangerous precedent and will make academia more vulnerable to other attacks.

For many of the pro- as well as antiboycotters, then, issues are at stake that go far beyond both the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and academic boycotts.

As the debate between pro- and antiboycotters continued, it became clear that if Israeli academia was harmed, British academia would also incur substantial damage.

Already at the end of June 2007, Dershowitz wrote: “It is fair to say…that the British boycott appears to be backfiring. British academics are on notice that if they try to isolate Israeli academics, it is they-the British academics-who will end up being isolated from some of the world’s most prominent academics and scientists.”[60] At a later stage, Dershowitz was even clearer in an official SPME announcement: “If the union goes ahead with this immoral petition, it will destroy British academia. We will isolate them from the rest of the world.”[61]

That the UCU, a few months after its conference decided to abandon the boycott attempts does however, not mean that the numerous diehard enemies of Israel on campuses in the UK will stop their attacks on the country. Most probably they will only switch their approach.

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[1] Many thanks are due to Ariel Pollock who was the research assistant for this article.

[2] “Protest against Call for European Boycott of Academic and Cultural Ties with Israel,” The Guardian, Original Press Release, 6 April 2002,

[3] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The Academic Boycott against Israel,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 15, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2003).

[4] See essay by Ronnie Fraser in this book..

[5] James Meikle, “Lecturers Back Boycott of Israel,” The Guardian , 30 May 2007.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Broadcasters Call to End NUJ Israel Boycott,” Press Gazette, 7 June 2007.

[8] Jonny Paul, “UK Journalists’ Union Calls Off Boycott,” Jerusalem Post, 11 July 2007.

[9] Jonny Paul, “UNISON Approves Watered-Down Boycott of Israel,” Jerusalem Post, 20 June 2007.

[10] Bernard Josephs, “T&G Urges a Ban on Israeli Goods,” Jewish Chronicle, 28 June 2007.

[11] “Boycott and Divestment Gains Ground in Northern Ireland,” NIPSA Press Release, 27 June 2007.

[12] Charlotte Halle, “Nobel Laureate Cancels Trip to ‘Anti-Israel’ U.K.,” Haaretz, 25 May 2007.

[13] Hagit Klaiman, “Livni Protests UK Academic Boycott of Israel,” Ynetnews, 1 June 2007.

[14] Haviv Rettig, “ADL Launches Anti-Boycott Campaign,” Jerusalem Post, 11 June 2007.

[15]  See essay by Ed Beck in this book.

[16],2506,L-3407111,00.html, 31 May 2007.


[18] Jon Boone, “Harvard Legal Expert Vows to Sue Lecturers Boycotting Israel,” Financial Times, 2 June 2007.

[19] Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz, “The Contemporary Fight against Anti-Semitism,” TimesOnline, 13 June 2007.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Barak Ravid, “U.K. Envoy to Israel: British Lecturers’ Boycott Unlikely to Affect Bilateral Ties,” Haaretz, 1 June 2007.

[23] Jeremy Last, “UK Education Minister Slams Academic Boycott of Israel,” European Jewish Press, 11 June 2007.

[24] Yaakov Lappin, “Blair: End Israel Boycott,” Ynetnews, 6 June 2007.

[25] Amiram Barkat and Assaf Uni, “Tory Leader Calls Himself ‘Zionist’: U.K. Jews Campaign against Boycott,” Haaretz, 13 June 2007.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Jonny Paul, “Liberal Democrat Party calls boycott ‘utterly misguided'”Jerusalem Post,,17 September 2007.


[29] “British Academics Condemn Colleagues,” Jerusalem Post, 13 June 2007.

[30] Robert Dynes, “Statement by UC President Robert C. Dynes in Response to British Faculty Union’s Proposed Action against Israeli Universities,” University of California Office of the President News Office, 18 June 2007.

[31] “President Joel Adds YU’s Name to List of Israeli Universities Boycotted by Britain’s University and College Union,” Yeshiva University News, 15 June 2007.

[32] Amy Gutmann, “Opposing Boycott of Israeli Academics,” University of Pennsylvania Almanac, 17 July 2007.

[33] “Poly’s President Joins Other Academic Leaders in Opposing Call for Boycott,” Polytechnic University News, 19 July 2007.

[34] Scott Cowen, “A Message from Scott Cowen,” Tulane University, 27 June 2007.

[35] Shlomo Shamir, “President of Black University Slams British Boycott of Israeli Academe,” Haaretz, 19 July 2007.

[36] David Naylor, “Letter to Sally Hunt,” University of Toronto Office of the President, 20 June 2007.

[37] Lorna Marsden, “On the Autonomy of Universities,” File: York’s Daily Bulletin, 21 June 2007.

[38] “B’nai Brith Canada Applauds Canadian Universities for Denouncing Boycott of Israel-Challenges Other Universities to Follow Example,” B’nai Brith Canada News Release, 28 June 2007.

[39] Sheldon Levy, “President Sheldon Levy’s Statement on Britain’s University and College Union Proposed Academic Boycott of Israeli Universities,” Canadian Newswire, 9 July 2007.

[40] Haviv Rettig, “Canadian University Urges UCU to Reconsider Boycott,” Jerusalem Post, 31 July 2007.

[41] Anthea Lipsett, “Oxford Academics Voice Hostility on Boycott,” The Guardian , 2 July 2007.

[42] “British Universities Silent on Boycott,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 1 July 2007.

[43] “American Physiological Society Objects to Proposed Boycott of Israeli Academics,” APA Policy Action Center, 16 July 2007.

[44] “UNESCO Chief Voices Concern over Potential Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” UN News Service, 22 June 2007.

[45] Associated Press, “UNESCO Criticizes French Isolation of Israeli Academics,” Jerusalem Post, 9 January 2003.

[46], 12 August 2007.


[48] Ibid.

[49] “Poll: British Elite against Boycott,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 27 June 2007.

[50] “Are You in Favour of an Academic Boycott of Israel?” New Statesman, 26 June 2007.

[51] BMJ Poll,, 30 July 2007.

[52] Conal Urquhart, “‘We Are under Siege,'” The Guardian, 20 June 2007.

[53] “MPACUK Supports the Boycott of Israeli Academia,”, 26 June 2007.

[54] Ghada Karmi, “Weapon of the Weak,” Haaretz, 13 July 2007.

[55] Mark Klusener, “Academic Boycotts Are Not Enough,” Haaretz, 13 July 2007.

[56] Report of the British All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (London: Stationery Office Ltd, September 2006), para. 191.

[57] Ibid., para. 206.

[58] Ibid., para. 213.

[59] Ronnie Fraser, lecture at JCPA Seminar, 19 July 2007.

[60] Alan Dershowitz, “An Academic Hijacking,” Wall Street Journal online, 28 June 2007.

[61] Traubmann, “Over 10,000 Academics.”

*     *     *

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is Chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is an international business strategist who has been a consultant to governments, international agencies, and boards of some of the world’s largest corporations. Among the twelve books he has published are Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (JCPA, Yad Vashem, WJC, 2003) and Academics against Israel and the Jews (JCPA, 2007).