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PACBI-Views on the UCU Congress Decision

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The Independent | June 5, 12, 2008

Views on the UCU Congress Decision

Lorna Fitzsimons: The UCU is wasting time and money

Thursday, 5 June 2008

I was motivated to become politically active at 15, standing for my first elected position specifically to deal with the issue of bullying. I joined the trade-union movement for the same reason: to combat bullying and harassment in the workplace. These aims are the cornerstones of trade unionism. They have been hard-fought for, and must continue to be so.

This year's University and College Union (UCU) conference, like last year's, featured an Israel-boycott motion. The wording didn't state so explicitly, but this was merely political wordplay on the part of the pro-boycotters. Any motion calling for discriminatory actions based on nationality alone should be branded exactly what it is: at best discriminatory, at worst racist. Any definition to the contrary is inaccurate and an insult to the intelligence of the mainstream membership of the union and the wider academic community.

The idea that a lecturer, student or institution be assessed according to nationality, not academic merit is one that should frighten all of us who value a democratic, open society. We have dedicated many years and considerable efforts to fighting for equality and anti-discrimination legislation. This is a backwards step that we cannot tolerate.

Israel boycotts have featured in each of the last four annual conferences of the UCU, and its predecessors, the AUT and NATFHE. This is, to my mind, due to a misinterpretation or, more worryingly, manipulation of a fundamental tenet of trade unionism: international solidarity.

A boycott of Israel will not bring peace to Israel or the Palestinians. It will further drive a wedge between two peoples. As Bill Rammell said to the UCU congress, "Boycotting academics because of their nationality I find deeply disturbing. And there is no evidence that such a strategy would further the cause of peace in the Middle East".

Dialogue is the only way to bring about positive change. Israeli and Palestinian academics have long blazed a trail of cooperation and between the two peoples. This makes the UCU's renewed calls to boycott all the more unsavoury. A boycott ignores the complexities of the Middle East. Neither side has a monopoly on suffering or blame for the conflict. We rightly take pride in the fact that our universities are the place for open dialogue, freedom of speech and liberal thought. We have an obligation to ensure that these basic yet essential rights remain.

The pro-boycott fringe of the UCU knows it cannot win. Its union's own legal opinion says so. An independent legal opinion provided by the Stop the Boycott campaign says so. The Socialist Workers Party, vocal supporters of last year's motion, themselves acknowledged that, in a full ballot of UCU members, "the boycott would almost certainly be heavily defeated". Yet, here we are again.

A stark and honest appraisal of the state of the UCU reveals a worrying reality: this fledgling union has been hijacked by an unrepresentative minority of far-left activists. In constantly pursuing policies it knows to be discriminatory, and thus illegal under the Race Relations Act, it is wasting the time and money of members, and sullying the reputation of the union.

Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, can neither allow these actions to continue within her union, nor put them down to two warring factions. She must step up to the plate and put an end to these overtly discriminatory actions. With academic freedom comes responsibility. Trade unions exist for a simple reason: to protect their members through ensuring fairness and freedom from harassment in the workplace. How ironic that unionists are proposing legislation that will produce the very opposite of this.

Hypothetically speaking, if Israeli UCU members were to find their jobs at risk, where would they go for assistance? Who would fight their corner? When your union is the very body causing your grievance, your options would be very limited indeed. Can a union expect to be taken seriously when it is sanctioning discrimination and harassment of its own members, based on their passport or affiliations? Can such a union expect to survive?

Ferocious and free debate is of course a fundamental part of any civilised society, but we cannot, and must not allow such principles to threaten any member of that society, especially on grounds of nationality. The UCU's Israel boycott motion represents the antithesis of trade unionism.

Rather than wasting the time and money of its members to satiate the extreme views of a minority fringe, the union should busy itself with the tasks it and all other unions were set up to undertake: supporting its membership and their needs.

The writer is chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, joint head of the Stop the Boycott campaign, and former Labour MP for Rochdale.

Education letters: UCU's Palestine stance
Thursday, 12 June 2008

Lorna Fitzsimons misstates the position of the University and College Union regarding Israeli universities ("The UCU is wasting time and money" EDUCATION & CAREERS, 5 June 2008. There was no boycott motion debated at congress. Linda Newman, outgoing president of UCU, explicitly stated this in seconding the Palestine motion, saying she would not have supported it if it were.

The motion was supported by an overwhelming majority of congress, including boycott supporters, many opposing the boycott and more who are undecided. What united the people voting in favour was their anger at Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian territories; the constant disruption in the daily lives of Palestinian lecturers and students, making normal university life impossible; and the involvement of many academics in Israeli universities as members of the Israeli army enforcing the occupation and in research contributing to the maintenance of it.

The motion does not refer to nationality: it includes non-Israelis working in Israeli universities and excludes the many Israelis working abroad. That Mr Rammell was similarly misinformed does not strengthen Ms Fitzsimon's case. The motion addressed two main issues: the institutional position of Israeli universities; and Ariel College, set up within an illegal settlement on land criminally expropriated and with an academic mission to support the still-expanding settlement programme.

I have not seen the legal opinion the union received and was calling for its publication long before Fitzsimons asked for this. I have, however, read the Stop the Boycott opinion and, even as a non-lawyer, can see it is riven with weak logic and poor argument: it is not a dispassionate account of the law, it is an advocacy brief making the best of a weak case. It rests on a series of dubious extrapolations of the type: if A is true and A were to lead to B and B to C and C is illegal then A is illegal, but throughout, neither the initial postulate not the chain of causality stand up to scrutiny.

The union is not "sanctioning discrimination and harassment of its own members, based on their passport or affiliations" and no evidence is given for this assertion. If we saw the UK Government applying pressure to the Israeli government to end the occupation it might not be necessary for UCU to take the lead, but we see no such pressure.

Mike Cushman, LSE UCU delegate to congress

The UCU's outgoing president, Linda Newman, who seconded the motion on Palestine, is not paid to promote any particular interest in the Middle East. Neither am I, as a member of the UCU's national executive, as a tutor, or as mover of the motion. We both supported the proposal though one of us is opposed to an academic boycott, while the other is persuaded of its efficacy. This was not a boycott motion.

Our response to Fitzsimons would have registered that the motion called for the provision of information to our members, and an invitation to them to reflect on the appropriateness of continued formal links with Israeli academic institutions that are complicit in the occupation. Opposition to barbarity, colonisation and educational discrimination is not just an appropriate activity for a trade union, it is a duty of trade unionists, and particularly for those in education. A commitment to justice does not dissolve at the edges of one's sectional interest, at the boundaries of one's institution, or at the frontiers of one's country

Tom Hickey by email

If Lorna Fitzsimons joined the trade union movement "to combat bullying and harassment in the workplace" she should be fighting for the rights of Palestinians to be relieved of the bullying and harassment that is state policy in Israel, the illegal and brutal occupier of Palestine. Palestinian lecturers have to contend with bullying, harassment and humiliation on their way to work. Their students contend with the same treatment on their way to university. Lecturers and students have been imprisoned without charge and students from Gaza have been barred from taking studying in Europe and America for no good reason. Israel also has policies that discriminate against its own Palestinian citizens. These are reasons why the UCU has discussed what it can do to support lecturers under occupation.

She talks about dialogue as the only way to bring about positive change, but the evidence of dialogue with Israel since Annapolis is clear for all to see. Israel talks peace but practises war, land theft and dispossession. It has no interest in a dialogue for peace but a dialogue for submission and capitulation. It will not get its way with the brave Palestinian people.

What is needed is a campaign of pressure on Israel that will bring it to its senses. This will include boycotts, divestment and sanctions. The example of South Africa is there to see. Would apartheid have ended through dialogue alone?

Kamel Hawwash, Birmingham

Few academics will be impressed by Lorna Fitzsimons's pot pourri of misrepresentation and special pleading. Far from driving a wedge between two peoples, the UCU motion seeks a viable political settlement which diplomacy has failed utterly to deliver.

Far from blocking dialogue, the UCU motion has helped provoke debate. Far from hijacking the union, supporters of the motion advance by persuasion and claims of conscience. What Fitzsimons cannot admit is that the motion's supporters have scrupulously observed union democracy, and steadily grown in number as UK academics increasingly recognise the horrors that their colleagues in Palestine face.

Dr John Chalcraft, lecturer, Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Posted on 13-06-2008

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