A new mortal threat confronts civil liberties in the Western world. This is not, as you might think, the use of torture and detention without trial by the US and its allies.
No, apparently the real danger comes from the UCU lecturers’ union. The decision of its first congress four months ago to discuss a boycott of Israeli academic institutions has caused an international uproar.
I emphasise “discuss” because much of the row has proceeded on the basis that the UCU actually endorsed a boycott.
Absurd petitions have circulated, especially in the US, proclaiming, “We are all Israeli academics.” This hullaballoo is yet more evidence that defenders of the state of Israel are scared of debate.
The reason the UCU congress voted to discuss a boycott is the growing revulsion at the savagery of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The latest example is last week’s decision by the Israeli cabinet to declare Gaza an “enemy entity”, allowing them to cut off fuel and power to the 1.4 million Palestinians living in the enclave.
Israeli universities are implicated in this occupation. The most flagrant example is the so called “College of Judea and Samaria”, based in the illegal Zionist settlement at Ariel on the West Bank. Even Israeli academics have protested against a government decision to convert this institution into a university.
The effort by supporters of Israel to prevent any debate on the role of the state’s academic institutions is itself an attack on the human rights of British lecturers and should be dismissed with contempt.
Nevertheless, while the decision to discuss a boycott was a victory for the left, it is also a potential trap. The first elections to the new union’s leadership earlier this year produced a split result.
Sally Hunt, with the support of the right and centre-left in the old Association of University Teachers, won the position of general secretary. But the left won a majority on the executive.
Hunt came out very strongly against the decision to discuss a boycott. She has also expressed sympathy with calls from the Zionist camp to hold a membership ballot on the issue.
The signs are that Hunt wants to rush through the debate that the congress decided on and probably to weight it in favour of opponents of a boycott. She will then in all likelihood attempt to move quickly to mount a ballot with the aim, not simply of throwing out the boycott, but also of isolating the left within UCU.
The left faces two problems here. The first is that the boycott is an issue that divides critics of Israel. Even as sterling an anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist as Noam Chomsky opposes it.
The second is that any ballot would be dominated by a well-funded Zionist campaign that would enjoy the overwhelming support of the mass media. Under such pressure, the boycott would almost certainly be heavily defeated. Such an outcome would set back the cause of solidarity with Palestine in British universities for many years.
The left should refuse to walk into Hunt’s trap. We should make it clear now that we do not intend to propose an actual boycott of any Israeli academic institutions at the next union congress.
We should do so in order to achieve the maximum unity over the question of Palestine.
Many opponents of the boycott have been fulsome in their support for the Palestinians. We should put them on the spot and demand to know, if a boycott were off the agenda, what they intend to do help the Palestinians.
And, rather than apologising for raising the issue of a boycott, we should go onto the offensive. Not only should we put the spotlight on places like Ariel, but we should argue that UCU campaigns against the complicity of the British government in the US-Israeli policy of dividing the Palestinians and blockading Gaza.
And we should push now to build links and “twinning” campaigns between Palestinian and British colleges and universities.
The current boycott debate is important. But it is one step in a much longer struggle to win justice for Palestine.