The UCU Vote: An Eyewitness Report
Yesterday I attended the University and College Union's annual congress, where a motion encouraging a boycott of Israel was debated.
The union leadership were at great pains to say this wasn't a boycott motion, and it's true that the motion didn't use the word 'boycott': but it called on members to consider the moral and political implications of collaborating with Israeli academics; it asked them to discuss the occupation with those colleagues; it claimed that most Israeli academics are 'complicit' in the conflict; it mentioned that criticism of Israel isn't anti-Semitic 'as such', while ignoring the fact that the proposed measures are not a matter of criticism but of ostracism and punishment; and it raised the question of the appropriateness of continued educational links with Israeli academic institutions. Legal advice on this motion, taken by the Jewish community's Stop the Boycott campaign, has said that it amounts to a call to discuss a boycott of Israeli academics which risks violating the Race Relations Act, and the General Secretary implicitly acknowledged this when she said that the union would implement matters within the law. So it looked to me, and to all the other anti-boycotters I spoke to, exactly like a motion encouraging people to consider a boycott.
Motion 25 was passed, by a huge majority. There was a real, palpable desire in the meeting to take some action against Israel. An otherwise rather somnolent audience woke up at the first mention of Palestine, and applauded every suggestion that action should be taken against Israel. A congress which had just passed very moderate motions on Burma and Zimbabwe and Sudan, about solidarity with trade unions and asylum seekers, and putting pressure on governments, quite clearly felt that these measures weren't sufficient for Israel's crimes: that for Israeli academics, nothing but punishment would do.
At first the discussion was procedurally unexceptionable - both sides of a debate were permitted on an amendment which called, among other things, for the motion to be put to a ballot of the whole membership. This amendment was voted on and rejected - the majority of union delegates didn't want to give the membership of the union the opportunity to choose for themselves on this issue. But when Motion 25 itself was proposed and seconded, several delegates spoke in favour of it - and then it was moved that it be put to the vote. None of the people who wanted to speak directly against the motion were permitted to do so. However, the motion's proposer, Tom Hickey, was at this point allowed by the Chair to speak in favour of it again. No explanation or justification was provided for halting the debate before anyone could speak against the motion, while allowing its proposer to speak twice. I have to say, though, that in my opinion even if the debate had been conducted in an impeccably proper manner, it would have made very little difference: that audience really did want to vote against Israel.
This measure will discriminate against Israeli academics, and will impinge quite disproportionately on Jewish academics here in the UK. Most of them do not support any academic boycott against Israel, nor the de-legitimization of Jewish nationalism and of Israel's existence; and many of them want to work in collaboration with Israeli colleagues. Whether or not the procedures mandated by the motion are actually implemented is a matter on which the union executive will decide, but in some ways the damage is already done - the vote has normalized discrimination, the union leadership has made no effort to address, or to get Congress to address, the relevance and implications of anti-discrimination law in the UK, and if the policy isn't ultimately implemented the membership will be encouraged to think that some inappropriate force has pressured the union to drop it. So whatever now happens, the motion's supporters have achieved one thing: they have exacerbated the sense of isolation and alienation in the union felt by those who, even though they may strongly criticize some of Israel's policies and practices, sympathize with her often terrible problems, see the need for her existence, and wish her well. Their sense that the union is not a friendly environment, that it is ultimately a hostile place for people like them, will have materially increased as a result of today's activities by their union colleagues.
Because motion 25 was passed, I now belong to a union which is trying to discriminate against those of its Jewish members who don't think it's right to single the Jewish state out for punishment over and above far worse polities, or that it's right to hold it, and it alone, wholly responsible for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I spent yesterday afternoon sitting in a room with a large group of otherwise unobjectionable people, knowing that the great majority of them want in practice to discriminate against their Jewish colleagues. It wasn't a pleasant experience.