Everyone, including the movers of the motions, was taken aback by the vote at April’s conference of the AUT lecturers’ union to boycott certain Israeli universities.
The decision dramatically highlighted Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.
That remains a gain, despite the boycott decision being overturned at a recalled conference last week.
Although media coverage in Europe and the US was hostile to the boycott, the presumption behind the original vote, that Israel oppresses the Palestinians, went more or less unchallenged.
Palestinian rights campaigner Hilary Rose has pointed out that Israel sees itself as a European bridgehead in an Arab sea. For this reason its academic and research links with Europe are vital.
The academic boycott hit precisely at this link and the shock waves went right through to the Israeli cabinet.
In response, it made the College of Judea and Samaria in the illegal settlement of Ariel in the Occupied Territories a university. That was partly a “two fingers” message to AUT members and anyone wishing to resist Israel.
The Palestinian reaction to the boycott was overwhelmingly favourable. Some 74 percent of academics at Al-Quds University supported it.
The anti-boycott arguments were: a) the “peace process” requires dialogue, boycott stops this, b) singling out and criticising Israel is anti-Semitic, c) boycott is the opposite of academic freedom.
Not one stone was left unturned in the campaign to overturn the boycott and here a small section of the left gave the right wing forces a big leg-up.
Left Zionism went hand in hand with the right to mobilise all possible forces of reaction.
Lies were told. For example, a statement that the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions had made an agreement with the Israeli Histadrut trade union was framed in such a way that it implied the Palestinian unions opposed the boycott when in fact they supported it.
Activists such as Sue Blackwell, who proposed the original boycott motion, were vilified and even received death threats.
But this has not reversed a key political change that has taken place in the AUT.
That reflects the fact that it has become a proper trade union as international competition has turned university professors and lecturers into another section of the world working class.
Last year’s strike transformed the union and recruited predominantly young and temporary staff.
Many of the new members are part of the anti-war movement, part of the anti-G8 forces and so on.
These radicalised people joined forces with the left at the April conference to pass the pro-boycott motions in the teeth of opposition from the union executive.
Suddenly we found ourselves facing a call for a special council meeting right in the middle of examinations.
Already the University of Haifa had briefed Princess Diana’s former solicitors to write accusing the union of every kind of law breaking.
That threat of legal action was the first thing members heard from the union over why a special conference was taking place.
The anti-imperialist left in the union responded by taking the debate to a wider audience.
At Leeds we organised a debate between Hilary Rose and Norman Geras in preparation for a special general meeting of all members to brief our delegates.
At Manchester a campaign built a union meeting at which the anti-boycott group lost the argument, to their horror.
Both Leeds and Manchester are AUT branches run by activists who have been building a new union within the old professional association.
In other local associations, the right were more successful, sometimes where the left was the union leadership but had not built support on the ground.
Last week’s special conference had 254 delegates. Many were new faces, though the overall attendance was little bigger than in April.
Well known boycott supporter Steven Rose stood up and asked, “How dare they call me an anti-Semite when many of my family died in the Holocaust and I have fought anti-Semitism all my life?”
He described the difficulties that British support organisations for the Palestinians had getting books and research equipment to Palestine.
A Palestinian delegate queried how Israelis who demanded academic freedom could systematically deny it to Palestinians.
After a lengthy debate the previous boycott was “set aside” by a majority of about three to two.
With few exceptions, speakers, both for and against boycott, announced their support for the Palestinians.
The union members involved in prosecuting the AUT were condemned and asked to withdraw their action and the more reactionary resolutions were referred to the executive without being voted on.
Activists within the AUT now need to consider what to do next. We need to urge our executive to “grey list” Judea and Samaria University because it is an illegal institution in an illegal settlement and academics are legally bound by the Geneva Convention and a ruling by the International Court of Justice not to work with it.
We do not have to call a conference to do this. The executive has the power and the duty to do it.
“Grey listing” is a boycott tactic long used by the AUT in which institutional relations are suspended whilst contacts between individual academics may continue.
Dialogue with Palestine is now conference policy. We can use this to bring Palestinian academics and teachers to Britain to build awareness of Palestine and of a campaign for a boycott of Israel along the lines of the boycott campaign against South African apartheid.
The left and the opposition to oppression have been strengthened by the campaign for boycott, and the AUT has actually gained members.