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UCU drops boycott of Israeli academics

This post, by Jon Pike of the UCU National Executive is reposted from Engage

Full details of the SWP and UCU’s climb-down can be read on Engage, here.

The National executive of the UCU met on Friday the 28th November, considered, and decided upon the ‘implementation’ of Motion 25, the quasi-boycott motion adopted in the spring.

To cut to the chase, the NEC accepted a recommendation from SFC and the General Secretary that we should implement Motion 25 by, well, not implementing it at all, but implementing something quite different.

The whole thing is, frankly, a bit weird.

Here is what the proposer, Tom Hickey, said about the resolution back in June.

“The motion committed the union to providing information on the occupation to members drawn from the testimonies of UCU members who visited Palestine and the Palestinian colleagues who recently visited the UK to tour campuses o the invitation of the UCU. It also resolved to initiate an international greylisting investigation into Ariel College which has been designated as a university and constitutes the educational arm of the colonization of the West Bank. The union will now have to pursue these issues through it s normal procedures.”

The motion also encouraged members to boycott Israeli academics by stating that they were ‘apparently complicit’ in the occupation. And it contained a rubbishy apologia for left wing antisemitism.

Now the SFC – led by one Tom Hickey – has proposed: no dissemination of testimonies, no greylisting of Ariel, and no investigation, no ‘consideration of the appropriateness’ of continued academic links with Israel.

All this has been dropped. If I was Sue Blackwell, I’d cry ‘sell out.’ In fact, most objective observers might conclude that the advocates of an academic boycott of Israel had been sold down the river by their erstwhile comrades in the SWP.

But that was the dog that didn’t bark.

There was quite an extended discussion – some of which was a rehearsal of contributions that people had wanted to make at Manchester, but were unable to do when the chair cut the discussion short. We were, at first, asked by the General Secretary if we wanted to ‘repudiate’ Motion 25. I argued that we should – the motions was stupid and destructive, adopted in violation of democratic norms, unrepresentative of the membership, and so on, and there was some support, though we would not have won a vote. There was quite a lot of discussion about the deficiencies in the conduct of debate at Congress. Mary Davis, Simon Renton, Andrew Morgan, and Stephen Desmond all spoke out very clearly against different aspects of Resolution 25, and one member of the NEC got a lot of support when he attacked the amount of time spent on the discussion of Israel. He remarked that the trendy issue had been Iraq, for a while, then it was Columbia, and now it was Israel – taking up the time of the union which was not being used to address pay, terms and conditions, and issues of racism in the union

However, it was argued that the executive did not have the right to repudiate the policy.

But this discussion was a bit bizarre. SFC and the NEC have, in effect, repudiated all of the policy that is left standing.

Fairly often, in my union, I get the sense of being the little boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes. (For example, we tell the world that we are a democratic and member-led union, we say that we defend academic freedom and we say we are an anti-racist, anti-discrimination institution. Within a limited range, these claims are just false.)

But I got this sense most intensely, on Friday the 28th. What we saw was the large scale abandonment of Motion 25. And the proposer and seconder, the strongest advocates of the policy were all in the room smiling, and largely keeping their mouths shut, like Stepford wives, as their policy was eviscerated in front of them.

Instead, all the international work is to be lumped together – diluting the concentration on Israel. What is proposed is:

• Guidance to branches to facilitate twinning with universities and colleges in those countries covered by the international motions passed at 2008 Congress, namely Zimbabwe, Colombia, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Burma etc

• Commission an independent report on academic freedom and the rights of staff and students within all those institutions and countries covered by 2008 Congress international policy

• Publicise the report widely once finished and seek to raise awareness amongst members and the public of the findings of the report

• The general secretary to ensure in line with this advice, that any expenditure on Motion 25 and other international motions is proportionate and within UCU’s agreed budget for international work.

That’s it.

We also passed a good statement on academic freedom, that recommitted the ucu to its antidiscrimination rule 6.1

There are two interesting features of this position. First, it’s clear that the proposed “programme of implementation” is informed by the legal advice given to the union. So the slightly clumsy lumping together of Columbia, Burma, Zimbabwe and Palestine reflects that advice too. It suggests that there is a legal – not just a political, moral, and logical – problem with the singling out of Israel for special treatment. And this is itself a step forward.

Second, it’s worth speculating on the reasons for the SWP’s now annual sell out of the boycotters. Here it will be said that the proposal adopted is simply forced on the union and its members by anti-democratic litigants But suppose this was true: then the SWP would, well, fight. It would take on the court case, defend the autonomy of the union’s decision making processes, take any hit in the pursuit of a principled political project.

So, when your local UCUleft hack starts jumping up and down and talking about Taff Vale, or even about the well-funded conspiracy – you need to say: ‘Yes, I know, shocking, isn’t it? We have to fight, that’s the way the movement was built. First, we have to loudly proclaim our policy and stick to it. Only that way will we retain the confidence and support of our members.’

Then watch as they quietly study the bottom of their coffee mug.

So the question is – why doesn’t the SWP fight? Why has it capitulated?

There are some micro reasons: the comrades have a few other fish to fry at the moment, what with Brother Rees’s shenanigans and their incipient internal split. But I don’t think that’s it.

The answer is, for me, obvious. The proposal that the SWP supports – for an academic boycott of Israel – is one that they cannot win in any single branch of the UCU. No branch has this policy. The members, by and large, regard it as peripheral and as an embarrassment, at best. Now, especially after the Delich affair, the SWP realise that it makes them look weird and obsessive. Their pro-boycott coalition – including its wilder antisemitic supporters and the odd Zanu-PF afficianado, looks unpleasant to most ordinary members.

But add to this that the SWP more or less control a more or less significant union – the UCU. They wish to hang on to that control and the boycott (partly, I hope, due to the efforts of us at Engage) threatens that control.

In some respects, this is a familiar event: it’s the annual collapse of the pro-boycott policy of the UCU, once the leadership – and their lawyers – take a good look at it. It’s familiar in another way. Take away the substance – and what you’ve got is a typical fake-left union bureaucrat, making demagogic speeches to the zealots at the seaside, then quietly burying an unworkable policy in the autumn. Only this time the fake left bureaucrat is Tom Hickey, a leading member of the SWP.

I don’t like to say I told you so, but I did, in an email to the general secretary before Congress. To the extent that the UCU was in legal jeopardy, it had only itself to blame. And of course, it would not have the support of the membership in fighting a case.

And there is the outstanding matter of the antisemitic canteen culture in the UCU which has led to dozens of Jewish members resigning. Again, this is still unresolved and the leadership is now dimly aware of the problem. You can’t run a union in which you have to suspend people for distributing anti-Semitic screeds and simultaneously brush aside complaints about anti-Semitism. It is likely to become more aware in the next few weeks.

But the 2008 round of the boycott debate is over, and the boycotters have lost. Again.

And perhaps the biggest casualty this year was the ordinary language use of the word ‘implement’.

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