Thursday, May 31, 2007

Lecturers looking for ways to help justice, when government will not

BRITAIN'S main academic trade union, the University and College Union, has voted at its first annual conference for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, in solidarity with Palestinian academics and students, and response to Israel's continuing its 40-year long occupation of the Palestinian territories it seized in the Six Day War.

Or if you prefer the liberal Guardian's opening sentence, "University lecturers threatened yesterday to provoke international condemnation by forcing their union into a year-long debate over boycotting work with Israeli universities".

Nowt like a bit of objective reporting from the quality press, is there? One might have thought the lecturers' delegates, who voted by 158 to 99 for the boycott resolution, were looking for a way to express international condemnation of the Israeli government's actions and what's probably the world's longest military occupation, as well as its treatment of Palestinian students. But evidently that kind of international condemnation doesn't count, as compared with the condemnation the lecturers might "provoke" from the Israeli state' s supporters, particularly those in the United States.

Then again, there's the question of democracy. Just because some UCU members drew up a composite motion, publicised it beforehand in the union, and in the press, then discussed and voted for it in conference, does not give them the right to "force" their union into debating the issue! You will be saying next that Palestinians have the right to vote for their own government and expect that it would be recognised.

Besides, whoever heard of academics being asked to acquaint themselves with the facts and debate the issues?! Or heaven forbid, to exercise their consciences!

I'd been hoping to have the full text of what was actually passed, but the papers I've seen didn't have space, and their reports were mainly taken up with quoting opponents condemning the resolution. UCU's website on which I read the original motion is given over to an explanation that "The motion passed at UCU congress on Wednesday 30 May calls for a process of providing information and engaging in dialogue. It does not call directly for an academic boycott of any Israeli institutions. The National Executive Committee will in the near future be considering what action it should take in relation to all the motions passed at congress".

Accompanying this is a quotation from an interim report saying it would be up to "legitimate" organisations within the state or occupied territories to call for a boycott, before the union could respond.

What the UCU conference delegates decided was that the union should circulate its branches with the call from Palestinian unions for a boycott, in the light of which members would be asked to consult their consciences about co-operation with Israeli institutions. Though critical of most Israeli academics for assisting the occupation, the resolution did not call for any boycott of individual academics. That is an invention of the pro-Israel lobby. "This is not targeting individuals or trying to break contacts with them", said mover Tom Hicks from Brighton University.

What the papers did not report was the enthusiastic response from Palestinians who had called for a boycott. "The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) salutes the historic decision by the University and College Union (UCU) Congress today to support motions that endorse the logic of academic boycott against Israel, in response to the complicity of the Israeli academy in perpetuating Israel’s illegal military occupation and apartheid system".

This enthusiasm may be as premature as the Israel lobby's hysteria, to judge from UCU's website and general secretary Sally Hunt, who has made her opposition to the boycott clear all along, and said "I do not believe a boycott is supported by a majority of UCU members, nor do I believe that members see it as a priority for the union". In other words she wants to appeal to an apathetic "silent majority" against those who have gone to the trouble of becoming delegates and getting motions through conference.

The Zionists have a reason for exaggerating the "threat", as they do for pretending that individuals are to be boycotted. Their position depends on paranoia and presenting themselves as the victims, both to whip up supporters and scare potential opponents, and by getting in their campaign blows now they can prevent things developing.

Not being an academic, I don't feel obliged to decide what's the best action for people in academe to take. I was pleased to see from the UCU motion that they are interested in positively helping Palestinian higher education and students rather than just taking negative action, though that too is something the papers don't report.

I don't agree with a blanket "academic and cultural boycott", and nor am I convinced that an academic boycott is going to be effective. But academic life is not remote from politics, and those in places of learning and research should be aware and responsible for what they are doing, who with and who for, and consider where to draw a line. Besides, much of the outrage being generated suggests to me that the kind of resolution adopted by UCU must be doing some good!

British government deserves prize for hypocrisy

ONE comment which the Guardian highlighted, and so will I:

"The UK government fully supports academic freedom and is firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel.. This does nothing to promote the Middle East peace process."

- That was Bill Rammel, Education Minister in a government that wants academics and other staff to spy on student "extremism" (UCU members have rejected that thought police role).

This is the government which used its EU presidency to suppress its own diplomats' report on rights abuses and illegal land-grabbing around Jerusalem; which connived at the piratical Israeli raid on Jericho prison by withdrawing its observers; which cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority so that people would suffer because they voted the wrong way, but lets Israel keep privileged access to EU markets whatever it does; The government which stood alone with the Bush administration in vetoing calls for a cease-fire in Lebanon; and which let its airfields, including civilian Prestwick, be used for rushing the latest cluster bombs to Israel for use sowing death and destruction across Lebanon.

So now it wants to lecture us about promoting "the peace process"?

No wonder citizens like the lecturers, journalists and others are searching for ways they can do something for peace with justice, rather than leave it to this government!

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