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Socialist Worker | October 6, 2007

Unite against this gagging order on a trade union

Very unusually, this is the second column of mine running on the same subject – the controversy caused by the UCU lecturers' union decision to discuss a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

My suggestion that the left in UCU should not propose a boycott at next year's union congress caused some anger among Palestinian solidarity activists. I regret this, but believe our disagreement was essentially over tactics, not principle.

I support boycotting Israel, but believed that we needed to head off the danger of a big defeat for the left if UCU general secretary Sally Hunt went ahead with a membership ballot on the issue. But now Hunt has gone even further than I expected.

On Friday of last week the union's strategy and finance committee declared a ballot would be "unlawful" and cancelled the planned series of meetings around the country to implement the congress decision to hold a debate on the boycott.

This decision was based on legal advice that "it would be beyond the union's powers and unlawful, 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".

The lawyers also say, "to ensure that the union acts lawfully meetings should not be held to ascertain the level of support for such a boycott".

This amounts to the most astonishing and self-imposed gagging order on a trade union. We've grown too used to the scope of trade union action becoming heavily restricted thanks to the Tory legislation that New Labour has kept in force.

But now we're being told that we can't even debate a boycott. As a UCU member, the first thing I want to know is who provided this legal advice.

I was astonished to learn that over the summer UCU head office had consulted the solicitor Anthony Julius, Princess Diana's divorce lawyer.

He has equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, denounced the UCU decision to discuss a boycott as "truly appalling", and offered to act for academics or students affected by any boycott.

What on earth is Sally Hunt doing using UCU members' subscriptions on consulting someone so clearly associated with one side of the argument?

The strategy and finance committee's decision follows the most massive international campaign by supporters of the state of Israel against the UCU decision. The Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz threatened legal action to "devastate and bankrupt" anyone acting against Israeli universities.


Dershowitz is an arch-hypocrite. He claims to be a civil liberties lawyer but has defended the use of torture and the destruction of Palestinian villages in the fight against terrorism.

He has witch-hunted US academic critics of Israel, helping to block the award of tenure to the anti-Zionist historian Norman Finkelstein. That's how much he cares for freedom of speech.

But the UCU's leadership's caving in under pressure goes way beyond the debate over Israel and the boycott. This is a fundamental attack on the right of trade unions even to discuss, let alone to engage in, international solidarity.

As Amjad Barham of the Palestinian academics' union points out in a letter to Sally Hunt, "during the struggle against the odious apartheid regime in South Africa, British academics were at the forefront of the academic and other boycotts of the racist state. We do not see why considering ways of fighting Israeli oppression of Palestinians should be subject to different considerations."

It's bitterly ironic that this decision should have come the week there were widespread calls in the Western media for tougher international sanctions on Burma. Why is it OK to boycott Burma but we can't even discuss boycotting Israel?

This issue now transcends the question of the boycott. Whatever our views on that subject, lecturers – and all trade unionists – should unite to condemn and to demand the reversal of last week's decision.

We won't stand for being gagged on the say-so of anonymous lawyers. The debates on the boycott should be reinstated. And the next UCU congress should have high on its agenda how to deepen our solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Posted on 03-10-2007

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